Black lawmakers rejoice as Juneteenth donations give final boost to launch Colorado racial equity study

The Juneteenth Music Festival on Welton Street. June 15, 2024.
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The Juneteenth Music Festival on Welton Street, June 15, 2024.

This Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, Colorado lawmakers helped secure funds for the state’s first ever study to examine the systemic inequities its Black citizens face.

“It's been amazing and I can't take any credit. It's been a lot of community lift,” said Democratic State Senate Pro Temp James Coleman of Denver. 

Coleman said the last of the $785,000 needed to begin the three year project was donated Wednesday. He believes the holiday has helped push the policy forward.

“We've seen, I think, an increase in awareness and a desire to learn more about the history of Black community,” he said.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Colorado Senate President Pro Tempore James Coleman sits behind the dias on the last day of the legislative session, May 8, 2023.

In addition to sponsoring the bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday in 2022, Coleman was one of the main sponsors behind the bill last session to create a commission that will lay out how slavery has shaped Colorado. The commission will also work to chart the present day impacts of racism in everything from health care and education to housing and policing.

“We need that state-driven data in partnership with History Colorado and experts from our own state to come up with fresh data, history, the economic information about what's going on in Colorado to inform the policies we run moving forward,” said Coleman. 

On Saturday, Coleman and other members of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus marched in a parade from Manual High School in Denver and attended the Juneteenth Music Festival in Five Points, a historically Black neighborhood. 

“Juneteenth, it's about literal emancipation from physical slavery, which did have mental health impacts and other things, but it was a literal enslavement of a people that is tied to the history of America,” said Coleman. 

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Democratic State Sen. Rhonda Fields, Jan. 31, 2024.

Democratic Senator Rhonda Fields of Aurora was part of the group that attended the festivities. She said she hopes Coloradans use Juneteenth to really understand the significance of history. 

“There are still people who don’t understand why we’re celebrating it and I think it’s because there’s a lot of missing gaps in history,” said Fields. “I think about all of the people that fought long and hard for us to have our freedom and liberties and we’re still fighting today. “ 

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 and a state holiday the following year.  

The bill to create Colorado’s holiday cleared the state legislature with nearly unanimous support, but the racial equity study was more divisive and faced Republican opposition. Some felt it wasn’t necessary, while others worried it would open the door to reparation efforts. The commission will report back to the legislature with policy recommendations once the study is complete.

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Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod, center, in the House, Feb. 23, 2024.

For Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver, who also helped fundraise for the racial equity study, Juneteenth is about bridging Colorado’s past and present. 

“Once Black folks were freed, some of them migrated north, and where did they migrate to? They migrated right to our great state of Colorado. That's where cowboys, Black cowboys, came from,” she said. 

Members of the Black caucus told CPR News they felt proud that the federal government and states like Colorado are formally recognizing a holiday that has been celebrated in some parts of the country for decades.

Democratic Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora said she was displaying her Junteenth flag and attending events to mark the holiday. She planned to spend Wednesday with her grandchildren. 

“Freedom is not to be taken lightly, especially during these perilous times,” she said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Sen. Janet Buckner at the Capitol, March 1, 2023.