Utah celebrates Juneteenth as state holiday

Jun 19, 2022, 5:37 PM | Updated: Jun 20, 2022, 5:47 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah celebrates a new state holiday — Juneteenth National Freedom Day.

Betty Sawyer, activist and Juneteenth Festival and Holiday Committee director, has waited years for that one day.

She was born into civil rights activism in Maryland and her mother was a local NAACP president.

“I didn’t get to choose whether I was a part of this struggle. It’s like, ‘you’re coming along,’” Sawyer said.


Yet, she never celebrated Juneteenth, hadn’t even heard of it, until she moved to Utah. After she attended a local celebration, she worked for 33 years to make it a state holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger delivered an order to Galveston, Texas, informing enslaved African Americans that they were now free. Texas was the last state in the union with institutional slavery.

Juneteenth celebrations were held in Texas one year later and eventually spread to other parts of the U.S.

Texas made it a state holiday in 1980, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Utah Legislature made it a day of observance, but not a state holiday.

Then, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer. Protests, many violent, erupted across the nation.

“All of America got to watch what racism, what being totally disengaged with humanity looks like in front of their eyes on television over and over again,” Sawyer said. “I think that fueled the fire on so many levels, in public policy in the public arena, as well as the private arena.”

Last year, President Joe Biden’s signature made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Utah and several other states made it a state holiday.

“I’m very hopeful that this will help change the narrative about all history and make us more inclusive in what we do, whether we’re celebrating Juneteenth or something else,” she said.

Juneteenth, Sawyer said, is both a celebration and a reminder of progress yet to be made.

“The real work is what happens the day after Juneteenth? What will we do when we do anything differently?”

“What can I do today,” Sawyer says is her daily mantra, “to push that a step further?”

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Utah celebrates Juneteenth as state holiday