HONOLULU — Hawaii was poised to become the 49th state to recognize Juneteenth after the House and Senate on Tuesday passed legislation designating June 19 as a day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
If Hawaii’s governor signs the bill, South Dakota would be the only remaining state that doesn’t recognize the day as either a state holiday or a day of observance. South Dakota’s Senate passed a measure earlier this year that would observe the day, but the bill didn’t make it through the House. In North Dakota, the governor on April 12 signed legislation designating it a ceremonial holiday.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige hasn’t indicated his plans for the bill, which will not make the day a state holiday.
Akiemi Glenn, the founder and executive director of the Popolo Project, said the legislation is a way of honoring the ancestors of Hawaii’s Black people.
“There’s a recognition that we’re here and that we’re part of Hawaii,” Glenn said.
Popolo is the Hawaiian word for a plant with dark purple or black berries. The word has also come to refer to Black people. The Popolo Project is a community organization that aims to help redefine what it means to be Black in Hawaii and to help Black community members connect with one another and the larger community.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South in 1863. But it wasn’t enforced in many places until after the end of the Civil War two years later. Word of the Confederacy’s surrender didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought news of freedom to Galveston, Texas.
Glenn said the end of slavery didn’t solve the issues Black people continue to face in the United States, but it’s still a reminder of how an economy built on the exploitation of people can change.
She suspects Hawaii has been slow to recognize the day in part because the state’s Black population is relatively small. U.S. Census Bureau data has Black people at 3.6% of the population.
In addition, she noted Hawaii was an independent kingdom in 1865 and retains a strong identity from its history as its own nation. Finally, she said there’s a tendency for Black people to be treated as “perpetual foreigners” in Hawaii despite their presence dating back to the 18th century.
But there has been a shift in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, both in Honolulu, which recognized the holiday last year, and at the state Legislature this year. Floyd, a Black man, was killed last year by a white officer in Minnesota, and his death sparked nationwide protests in a reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality.
“There’s been tremendous momentum building around recognizing the humanity of Black people around the world, and certainly here in Hawaii, and listening to our voices,” Glenn said.
She hopes official acknowledgment of Juneteenth by the state will prompt people to learn more about the day’s history and how it has been observed.
State Rep. Cedric Gates, one of the lawmakers who pushed for the bill, said he hoped its passage showed, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the Hawaii Legislature in 1959, that the islands were an example for others when it comes to “racial harmony and racial justice.”
“I think it’s a good time and place — in terms of the landscape of politics and where we’re at right now as a society — to do things like this, to double down on our commitment to seeing this change come to fruition,” said Gates, who identifies as African American and Samoan or afakasi, which is a Samoan word meaning of mixed Samoan heritage.