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Bill aims for North Dakota to legally recognize Juneteenth



BISMARCK, N.D. — A bipartisan bill in the North Dakota Legislature aims to recognize Juneteenth as a ceremonial holiday in the state.

North Dakota is only one of three states in the nation that does not legally recognize the June 19 holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. and is also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day.

The legislation, SB 2232, is sponsored by two longtime senators, Fargo Democrat Tim Mathern and Grand Forks Republican Raymon Holmberg. The pair backed successful legislation 30 years ago to recognize the third Monday in January as a state holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Mathern said he’s sponsoring the current bill in part to bring attention to “the experience of African Americans in our country.”

The Senate Government and Veterans Affairs committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill Thursday.

Although the legislation would make June 19 a state-recognized holiday, it would not be an official paid holiday for state employees. Mathern said the bill would unlikely pass in the Legislature if it included paid time off for state workers.

Holmberg said he would not have supported the bill if it did.

“I think we can still recognize this and be respectful without spending a lot of money,” said Holmberg, who heads the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

South Dakota and Hawaii are the only other states that don’t have an official observance of Juneteenth, as either a state or ceremonial holiday.

Juneteenth marks the day on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers told enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the South in 1863, but it was not enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War in 1865.

North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and South Dakota GOP Gov. Kristi Noem both recognized June 19 in proclamations last year to commemorate the day, but for 2020 only.

South Dakota lawmakers also are considering a bill to legally recognize the holiday. The legislation already has passed the Senate and has been sent to the House for consideration.

Martin Luther King Day was added as an official North Dakota holiday in 1991. From 1987 until the adoption of the 1991 legislation, the third Monday in January was “designated” as MLK day, but it was not an official holiday.

It is not unusual for legislators to work on state holidays, and the Legislature itself has never observed the King holiday. They also have often met on Good Friday and Presidents Day while in session.

Some North Dakota lawmakers have said in the past they were troubled by the Legislature’s decision to meet on the state holiday honoring slain civil rights leader.

None of the Legislature’s 141 members are Black. According census data, North Dakota’s African American population has more than tripled since 2010 to 25,000 but still makes up only about 3% of the overall population.