SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Juneteenth became an officially recognized state holiday with the stroke of Governor Kristi Noem’s pen on Thursday, Feb. 10.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that word reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that they had been freed two years prior with the signing of the emancipation proclamation.
The bill to recognize the holiday took a looping path through the Legislature, moving from the House, to the Senate and back once more to the House after it was amended. Prior to that, a nearly identical version of the bill failed in the Legislature a year prior.
South Dakota has become the final state in the nation to officially recognize the holiday, a year after it was commemorated as a national holiday by the federal government.
Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-Sioux Falls) is the legislator who brought the bill last session, and did so once more this year. He this year’s bill when the Governor put forth a nearly identical bill. He spoke with KELOLAND News about the significance of the new South Dakota holiday.
“It’s part of our nation’s story — an important part of it,” said Nesiba. “This is a great holiday; all Americans should be able to celebrate the end of slavery.”
Nesiba points out that while Juneteenth is a holiday that many South Dakotans may have been unaware of until recent years, there has been a more or less continuous celebration of the day since 1865, mostly within the African American community.
Observing the holiday, says Nesiba, provides a chance for education.
“It gives us another opportunity to learn a little more about U.S. history, and to remember that for so long in our history, slavery was an important part of how America was built — it was a terrible immoral system, and ending that system is something all Americans should celebrate,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock to official recognition of the holiday in South Dakota has been a lack of awareness.
“Part of it is that we do have so few African Americans [in the state],” said Nesiba. “The largest minority group in South Dakota would be our nine Tribal Nations — it made sense for states with larger African American populations to press for and to have passage [of Juneteenth recognition].”
While the state has never had a large African American population, Nesiba points out that diversity is growing. “We’re increasingly diverse,” he said. “If we look at what’s happened in Sioux Falls in the 27 years I’ve been here — when I came [to the area] the school district was 90% white and about 10% diverse. Our school district is now about 60% white and about 40% diverse.”
Nesiba says that this increase in diversity is a reason to celebrate, and that the recognition of Juneteenth goes a long way toward raising awareness of the diversity in the state. “I think just by simply having a holiday — that people will ask ‘what is Juneteenth, and how come I didn’t know about it’.”
Above all, Nesiba points out that Juneteenth is an inclusive holiday. “Juneteenth is for all of us,” he said. “This isn’t just an African American holiday — celebrating the end of slavery in America is something we can all embrace.”
One note that Nesiba has made note of at every turn is that the law recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday will not take effect until July, meaning that in order for the holiday to be officially observed this year, the Governor will need to sign an executive order to recognize the day, as she did in 2021.