HONOLULU — Hawaii on Wednesday became the 49th state to officially recognize Juneteenth when the governor signed legislation designating June 19 as a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
Gov. David Ige signed the bill just hours before the U.S. House passed its own legislation designating the day a federal holiday. The U.S. Senate already passed the bill, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign.
Hawaii's law recognizes Juneteenth but doesn’t make it a state holiday. The law takes effect immediately, just in time for the date to be officially observed on Saturday.
Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free.
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.
After the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police last year fueled calls to address systemic racism in the United States, Ige said it was more important and timely than ever that Hawaii acknowledge the African-American experience and the accomplishments of African Americans.
“With the signing of this bill, I hope that June 19 will serve as a moment of reflection for everyone here in the islands and across the country to remember where we’ve come from, but most importantly, to be inspired to move our country and our community forward in search of that more perfect union where we treat everyone equally each and every day,” Ige said.
The law came into being after Samantha Neyland, the-then reigning Miss Hawaii USA, launched a campaign to recognize the day.
She recalls preparing to speak live on social media about Juneteenth during the coronavirus pandemic and learning that Hawaii was one of few states that didn’t observe the day.
“And I kind of got embarrassed for my state. I just thought, OK, this is not who we are. We can’t be known for this. We’re so much better than that,” said Neyland, who is first African American to serve as Miss Hawaii USA.
The killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement gave her additional motivation, remembering how their deaths left her hurt, confused and angry and needing to channel these emotions into something.
“It kind of came to me and of me, and I decided, yeah, this is going to be my project,” Neyland said.
Neyland hopes official recognition will spur Hawaii schools to teach students about Juneteenth history and about how the Hawaiian Kingdom outlawed slavery in 1852. Neyland said she didn’t learn about either in school.
“You can’t change something that you don’t understand. So for me, this past year especially was about helping people understand,” she said.
South Dakota is the only remaining state to not observe Juneteenth.