Iowa City declares Juneteenth official city holiday

The City of Iowa City recently announced that Juneteenth will now be an official city holiday, following the city council’s commitment to better support Black community members in Iowa City.


Hannah Kinson

A protester walks with A Black Lives Matter flag on Saturday, June 20 on Burlington Street. The Iowa Freedom Riders hosted a celebration after the march to commemorate Juneteenth, the anniversary of when the last enslaved people were freed.

Claire Benson, News Reporter

Starting next year, the City of Iowa City will make Juneteenth — a holiday celebrated on June 19 to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. — an official city-wide holiday, swapping with President’s Day for a day off work for city employees.

Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black Americans since the late 1800s, though is not recognized as federal holiday. According to reporting from NBC, many historians and educators said Juneteenth and other historical events involving Black Americans are often left out of school curriculum, leaving many uneducated about the holiday and its significance.

On June 30, the city council passed a 17-point resolution in support of Black Lives Matter and ending systemic racism. The council met several demands raised by the Iowa Freedom Riders and other community organizations, and one of those demands was marking Juneteenth as an official city holiday.

Juneteenth will replace President’s Day as an official holiday, meaning city employees and the city’s collective bargaining units will now have the day off work on June 19 instead of Feb. 15.

City Councilor Janice Weiner, who proposed the idea in a June 16 council meeting, said since the city can only bargain for a set number of holidays each year, City Manager Geoff Fruin and collective bargaining units decided to trade the two.

She said the official recognition also indexes the city’s efforts to honor and celebrate Black culture within the community.

“This is also a signal that we believe now’s the time to focus on this, and to highlight this and elevate it in the public discourse and to honor it,” Weiner said.

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The holiday comes after public scrutiny placed on the city council to better support Black community members in Iowa City since Black Lives Matter protests began in the late spring. The Iowa Freedom Riders, a Black Lives Matter activist group in Iowa City, listed this acknowledgement as one of their demands for the city council.

“As the protests continued in Iowa City, the Iowa Freedom Riders as well as a lot of other individuals in the community, engaged with the city council on what can we do as the local government to help acknowledge the racism and oppression that we know exists everywhere against people of color and trying to do what we can at the governmental level to address that,” City Councilor Laura Bergus said.

Mayor Bruce Teague said the decision to make Juneteenth an official city holiday is one that he believes represents the commitment of city staff members and the city as a whole to ensure that everyone feels welcome and included within the community, along with emphasizing that Black lives matter.

Teague said as a Black man whose ancestors were directly affected by slavery and the original Juneteenth celebration, this is especially meaningful to him.

“This date is very important to me personally, because I am African American and my ancestors were slaves,” Teague said. “My grandfather, he himself had several different last names, and so those were the names of all of the slave owners that they had, and Teague was the last one. And so, this means a lot to me as an individual here in our community, and to celebrate the end of slavery.”

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Iowa City has had an annual Juneteenth celebration within the community for many years. People have gathered for cookouts and educational opportunities about what Juneteenth is and why it’s important to recognize.

However, Bergus said she felt it was equally important to officially acknowledge it and declare it as a city-wide holiday.

“Juneteenth has been recognized by the City of Iowa City for a number of years, and there’s been an annual celebration just kind of in the community,” she said. “But making it an official city holiday for employees of the city and our collective bargaining units to acknowledge it as a holiday is important.”

Teague said he hopes that in future years, Juneteenth will continue to be a day of celebration and reflection for all community members.

“I hope that people within the community will celebrate in ways that allow a time for reflection of what the day means and also allow a time for people to assess how they can contribute to the ongoing systemic racism to stop in our community and in our nation,” Teague said. “But it is also a time to just celebrate that we are all free, each one of us, all of us are Americans and are human, and we are free.”