Colorado lawmakers introduce bill declaring Juneteenth a state holiday

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Kyayla Hill marches in Denver’s Juneteenth Parade with her fellow Overland High School cheerleaders. June 19, 2021.

Colorado lawmakers have kickstarted the process of making Juneteenth an official state holiday, joining the federal government and many businesses that already observe it.

On Wednesday, members of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus gathered with  supporters outside the state Capitol to promote SB22-139. The bill would add Juneteenth to the calendar of state holidays starting this year. 

“I think Juneteenth is largely seen as an African American thing, but it should be seen as something for the general population,” said Sen. Janet Buckner, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It should be something to be educated about and never forgotten.” 

The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and freed the country’s last remaining enslaved people more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth has been recognized by many Black communities, including Denver’s, for decades.

President Joe Biden designated it as the 11th federal holiday in 2021, making it the first addition to the federal list since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. State holidays specifically impact the operations of government offices and public schools. 

Colorado’s effort to officially recognize Juneteenth stems from negotiations with the state workers’ union, which signed its first contract last November. The union, Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions Local 1876 (WINS), negotiated the addition of the paid holiday as a part of their 3-year deal, which also includes a new $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.

Supporters say the recognition of Juneteenth is also a symbolic nod toward improving diversity and equity in state government. 

During Wednesday’s press conference, Skip Miller, president of WINS, said that he never celebrated the holiday while growing up. It wasn’t until he moved to Colorado in the 80’s that he started attending annual Juneteenth celebrations in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. 

“This is something that we have all fought for,” Miller said. “We’re gonna ensure that all people who call this state home can celebrate such a critical holiday.”

The bill still needs to make its way through both chambers and receive the governor’s signature before it becomes official. Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday that he supported the change.

“By adopting Juneteenth as a state holiday, we're paying tribute to the millions of Black Americans who endured indescribable suffering under the horrors of slavery,” Polis said. “But just as important, we elevate the celebration because at its heart, this is a joyous holiday.” 

If successful, the addition of Juneteenth would be Colorado’s second change to its list of official holidays in recent years. The state replaced Columbus Day with Frances Xavier Cabrini Day in 2020. 

Members of the Black caucus expect little pushback on the effort — a stark difference from when members pushed for the addition of MLK day in the 80’s, said Sen. Leslie Herod, the caucus’ chair. 

“The person who had my seat prior to me, Wilma Webb, fought and fought for five years to make the MLK holiday real under threat. She actually lost her seat on the budget committee,” Herod said. “We ain't gonna have that same fight this year.”