Unity Group's Testimony On Tennessee Juneteenth Legal State Holiday

  • Monday, March 27, 2023

Dear Members of this distinguished Committee:

We deeply appreciate being allowed to testify on behalf of Juneteenth as a legal State holiday today. 

Juneteenth is the oldest and most recognized African-American holiday observance in the United States. Juneteenth ( also Freedom Day), the "19th of June", is the date when Union General Gordon Granger and thousands of Union soldiers, many of them United States Colored Troops, arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865. General Granger would issue Gen. Order Number 3 which informed the tens of thousands then held in bondage that they were in fact free. It represents the first day that the "new birth of freedom" professed by the Emancipation Proclamation and later enshrined in the 13th Amendment would become self-evident for all Americans. It can then be said that as we rightfully celebrate the Fourth of July as an occasion that freed us as a land, Juneteenth is celebrated because it freed us as a people.

We are affiliated with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. NJOF founder Rev. Ronald V Myers, Sr., M.D., introduced Juneteenth and obtained Juneteenth legislation in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Likewise, the Juneteenth Nation presented 1.9 million signatures to Congress in 2019 as we worked with elected officials to obtain unanimous passage in the Senate and 415 votes in the House. NJOF and the Juneteenth Nation are recognized as the Subject Matter Experts on Juneteenth by the Library of Congress and the 400 Year Commission on African American History. In a historic moment with NJOF board member Opal Lee at the table, in 2021 President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day legislation into law. There is currently Juneteenth legislation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 17 of those have already passed paid state holidays.    

Some may ask if this is already a federal holiday, and we have a State recognition, then why is there a need to designate this occasion as a legal state holiday? 

Our reply is because it honors the legacy of our State and many who have lived, worked and served here. Tennessee as a state has played a pivotal role in what is known as the “Wave of Freedom” which moved across our great nation between 1862-1866. We think of the Unionists in East Tennessee who were steadfast in their belief of the Union. We think that within this State we had the second most battles, second only to the State of Virginia. We think of the over 20,000 United States Colored Troops who served this nation in the name of freedom, many of whom helped to build up our towns, schools and greater society after the war concluded.  

We are also reminded of the 8th day of August because that is the date military governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson freed the slaves of this State. This celebration began in Greeneville, Tn. in 1871 by several former slaves of that community, including Sam Johnson.  As it spread across Tennessee, at one point Emancipation Day was celebrated in seven states and over 50 communities across the nation. It is still celebrated in Greeneville and many communities today. 

Further, we think a legal holiday embodies the  principles this nation and great State continues to aspire towards, liberty, freedom and justice not for the one or few, but liberty, freedom and justice for us all.

Most importantly, in a time when we can point to so much that divides us, we have to have signs and symbols that demonstrate that we are far better off united than divided. And Juneteenth, which is at its core the most American of American holidays, represents just that, one nation, indivisible, coming into balance, standing on the freedoms and principles that make us whole. 

Eric Atkins, Unity Group of Chattanooga

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