West Virginia city approves Juneteenth holiday proposal

The Huntington City Council in West Virginia on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal to make Juneteenth a permanent city holiday.

The celebration, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., is held annually on June 19.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams told council members before the vote that it was important for city leaders to make such a statement.

“It doesn’t change the matter of life and livelihood for our African-American, black neighbors in our community,” Williams said. “But it does send a message. It sends a message that we’re standing shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, heart to heart, that we have every expectation — not intention — expectation that we’re going to stand by them and make sure that the injustices that are present in our society are overcome.”

Williams said the idea came from meetings with his diversity advisory committee amid the international protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for air.

Under the proposal, Huntington City Hall will be closed Friday and city workers will receive holiday pay. Williams said the move will cost about $30,000. The city of about 45,000 residents along the Ohio River has a black population of about 9%.

Tonia Kay Page, one of two blacks on the 11-member City Council, said when she was growing up in Huntington, blacks were only allowed to go to a local theme park on one day a year. Blacks had to enter theaters through the back door. While in grade school, she wanted to become a member of the Girl Scout Brownies but was told by the organizer that she couldn’t become one.

“I said, why? I’m already brown,” Page said.

“So to come around with something to celebrate what we’ve been through and what we are still going through, (it’s) great that this is done.”

Bishop Charles Shaw, pastor at the Real Life Christian Center Church in Huntington, said the proposal “makes me prouder than I’ve ever been to be a part of the Huntington City Council.”

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also announced he would propose making Juneteenth an official holiday in his state whose capital was once the home base of the Confederacy.

The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when news finally reached African Americans in Texas that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves living in Confederate states two years earlier. When Union soldiers arrived in Galveston to bring the news that slavery had been abolished, former slaves celebrated.

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