Santa Clara County first to make Juneteenth a holiday
Helen Kassa and Milan Balinton with the African American Community Service Agency, Supervisor Cindy Chavez and State Senator David Cortese at a news conference on June 18. Photo by Stephanie Lam.

In light of the recent decision to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, Santa Clara County leaders hope residents will become more aware of African American history.

President Joe Biden signed a bill Thursday recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday, although this year Juneteenth is on Saturday. Prior to the bill, 47 states including the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or observance.

But here in California, Santa Clara County was the first to make Juneteenth an official paid holiday for county workers. The Board of Supervisors adopted the holiday last September and put $2.3 million in a reserve fund to pay employees one month prior. It’s the 13th paid holiday in the county.

“The decision to recognize this day is a testament to our continued commitment to advance racial justice and equity for all members of our county community,” Rocio Luna, deputy county executive, said in a statement.

Milan Balinton, executive director of the African American Community Service Agency, said Juneteenth signifies the independence of African Americans.

“What Juneteenth does is place a notice to people, that we recognize (slavery) has happened in America,” Balinton told San José Spotlight. “It sets the precedence for what freedom truly is for African Americans.”

Stemming from the date June 19, Juneteenth commemorates the end of U.S. slavery in 1865 and is also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day.

“(Having Juneteenth as a holiday) is an exciting time,” AACSA Policy and Advocacy Coordinator Helen Kassa said. “It means our history will be recognized and talked about in the classrooms. We’re hoping this will mean larger impacts in terms of awareness and recognition of the disparities in this country.”

Supervisor Otto Lee said he hopes the recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday at the county and federal level will help educate and raise awareness about the country’s history of slavery.

“Having the Juneteenth holiday will definitely raise awareness… about the significance of our history of slavery and how it is important that we need to make those changes and become educated and move forward as a nation,” Lee told San José Spotlight.

Balinton said AACSA has celebrated the holiday for 39 years by creating events for community members to learn about the significance of Juneteenth and to celebrate African American culture and history.

“Juneteenth means a lot in the space of awareness, recognition, celebration of freedom for my community and my people,” Balinton said. “We get together as a community… and celebrate in a country (our ancestors) knew nothing about but made the best of it.”

Contact Stephanie Lam at [email protected] or follow @StephCLam on Twitter.

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