SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Juneteenth is a recognized commemorative holiday in almost every state and the District of Columbia, and President Joe Biden signed a bill into law Thursday making it a federal holiday.
“We're becoming more diverse,” said state Sen. Reynold Nesiba of South Dakota, where the Black community has more than doubled since 2000.
But with that growth comes what many say is slow progress for inclusion.
“Diversity is the thing that, you know, no one can take away from us. But inclusion is an act, and we all play a part in it,” said Willette Capers, the Assistant Dean of Students for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.
Capers and local business owner Julian Beaudion have spent the last year working with South Dakota state legislators to make that inclusion real.
They worked to make Juneteenth an official state holiday that would give state workers an additional paid day off.
“What Juneteenth really represents is the promise for all Americans to be free,” said Beaudion. “It's the promise of tomorrow, it’s the promise of the future.”
At the beginning of 2021, there were three states left that didn’t recognize Juneteenth as a holiday: North and South Dakota, and Hawaii.
North Dakota and Hawaii both approved legislation to honor Juneteenth as a state holiday this year. South Dakota was the last state left after two bills introduced in the state legislature to recognize the holiday failed.
Sen. Nesiba wrote one of those bills with collaboration from community members.
“There weren't any really strong opponents to this bill, just a general sense that they didn't want one more holiday. I think somebody said that it could be potentially divisive. I see it just the opposite. I think that it's an inclusive holiday that we can all celebrate the end of slavery,” said Nesiba.
Both Nesiba and community members felt disappointed when the bill did not even make it past committee hearings.
“I find it somewhat ironic,” said Nesiba. “I don't think there's any other state that has a 60-foot carving of Abraham Lincoln's face, the great emancipator himself carved into the side of a mountain. You would think that with a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that we would be a state that would embrace the work and embrace the why Abraham Lincoln is on Mt. Rushmore.”
Beaudion hopes anyone who was opposed to this holiday will come to see that making Juneteenth a holiday is about more than the bottom line.
“As entrepreneurs, we understand the value of closing down on a busy day and we understand why business owners do not want to do it. However, they do it on July 4, they do it on other holidays. Juneteenth is just as important to us as July 4 is of the rest of America,” said Beaudion.
Even though the state legislature did not come to an agreement on Juneteenth, South Dakota’s governor did make a proclamation to ceremonially honor Juneteenth this year.
However, the community says a ceremonial day is just not enough.
These South Dakotans hope that next Juneteenth will be different—not just a federal holiday but one recognized by their home state.