PORT ROYAL — On the U.S. Naval Hospital grounds adjoining the old Fort Frederick stands a grand live oak. Under that tree on Jan. 1, 1863 was the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South. 

It was a Lowcountry celebration. A crowd of 5,000 dined on fresh bread and barbecued oxen, says a sign at the location.

But word did not reach all enslaved people immediately. Some in Galveston, Texas waited 900 days, until June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger delivered an order declaring “all slaves are free.”

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This was the first Juneteenth.

Live Oaks at Ft. Frederick

Live oak trees on the U.S. Naval Hospital on June 19, 2024. This was the location of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. Decades later, efforts to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday gained steam after the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police reignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

Attending the bill signing was Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” In 2016 at the age of 89, she walked from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., to rally support for establishing the national holiday.

In 32 states, Juneteenth is now an official holiday. South Carolina is not one of them.

Legislative effort continues to make Juneteenth an official paid state holiday

Attempts to pass the holiday into state law have stalled, requiring state and university employees to work when many others have the day off — even after President Joe Biden in 2021 signed federal legislation placing Juneteenth in the same canon as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.

The Post and Courier spoke to current and former state employees who are Black, historians who have dedicated themselves to unearthing and chronicling Black South Carolinian history and one of the legislators behind the push to make Juneteenth legally recognized in the state. Their personal histories with the day are as varied as their methods to honor it, but all share the same belief: Juneteenth should be a holiday in South Carolina.

A tale of two holidays

Juneteenth was not always known to Americans, including Black Americans. Celebrations that began in the Lone Star state largely spread as Black Texans moved away, in part during The Great Migration.

“I wasn’t really associated with that holiday until my adult life,” said Michael Allen, a historian who helped establish the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a federal National Heritage Area that runs from Jacksonville, Fla., to Wilmington, N.C., and is managed out of Beaufort. He is also a retired National Park Service ranger. “For many African Americans, this is a new era.”

Katie Slack, a graphic designer for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, spoke to The Post and Courier during a break in her Juneteenth shift. She said she learned about the historic day when it became a national holiday.

South Carolina has its own past with Juneteenth. In 1994, a weekend celebration took place in Charleston. There were vendors, gospel, boxing and picnics. Warith Deen Mohammed was part of the program. His father, Elijah Mohammed, led the Nation of Islam for 42 years. Celebrations would continue in the years after.

This year, Juneteenth merriment spanned the state. Festivals with food and music were scheduled on the weekends bookending the holiday and on the day itself. Among them a poetry reading in Summerville, music and dance performances in Mauldin, and a gala in Spartanburg. Local government offices were closed in Charleston and Columbia, as well as across the state in places like Beaufort, Bluffton, Clemson, Conway, Florence, Hilton Head, Mount Pleasant, Myrtle Beach, Orangeburg and Simpsonville, to give employees the day off.

While others celebrated, state employees clocked in. Required to work on a day that honors freedom from enslavement, some drew a comparison to another holiday dedicated to the rebel forces that fought in a war largely waged over slavery: Confederate Memorial Day.

“I remember thinking it was incredibly frustrating that something like Confederate’s day existed,” said Diana Prestigiacomo, who previously worked for DNR. She now works for the state of Colorado where Juneteenth is a holiday. “Why would Confederate’s Day be any better or more significant than Juneteenth? Or what is the difference?”

In 2000, Gov. Jim Hodges signed legislation allowing Confederate Memorial Day, celebrated on May 10, and Martin Luther King Day to become state holidays. That made South Carolina the last state to establish a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. At the time, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged the governor to veto the bill, not wanting to tie the holidays together. Confederate Memorial Day was first established in 1896 in South Carolina, but over the century employees had flexibility between taking that and other days off.

A recent legislative effort linked the Confederate holiday with Juneteenth. A 2022 bill would have given state employees the choice of taking either day off, removing Confederate Memorial Day as a paid holiday. That bill unanimously passed the Senate, but never received a vote in the House.

“That was the best we could get at that time,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Richland County Democrat who was one of the bill’s sponsors. “I would take it today. If that’s the best we could get today, it is better than what we have now.”

Legislation that Jackson introduced in the 2024 session would simply add Juneteenth as a holiday. The bill did not get a vote.

Jackson spent the height of the pandemic tracing his family tree back to 1776. He said he would spend Juneteenth visiting his ancestral graveyard and historic places around Richland County. Juneteenth is a somber day for him.

“So many sacrifices were made,” he said. “Just generations of people who never saw freedom.” 

Fighting for Black history

This week, another Juneteenth came and went without official state recognition. Failing to honor Black history is a theme to some historians, who have devoted themselves to highlighting the legacy of Black South Carolinians. 

Citadel adjunct history professor Damon Fordham, who gives tours of Black Charleston, remembers sitting in Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant in 1978 learning a false and racist narrative about the post-Civil War period in his eighth grade history class. A few years ago, he found a copy of “The History of South Carolina,” a book taught to his class, in a local library.

“The Republican state government organized companies of state militia made up of Negro soldiers,” the book reads. “These were men who had never before handled a gun. Not surprisingly, some of the Negroes lost their heads. … Feeling that their property and lives were in danger, the white men began to form a secret organization. This organization, the Ku Klux Klan, had come into existence in Tennessee.”

In reality, the Klan first organized in South Carolina in response to Black suffrage in 1868, and Black militias were formed the following year to protect Black communities after a wave of racially and politically motivated violence.

Fordham remembers going to the school library, where he read Langston Hughes and other Black histories.

“What happened in the Black history largely contradicted that narrative so that’s why it was not taught,” he said. “I was getting in the library what I wasn’t getting in the classroom.”

South Carolina continues to lag behind in recognizing and celebrating Black history, said Val Littlefield, a history professor who is the interim director of a Reconstruction study institute at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. She also teaches at the main campus in Columbia.

Some states have promoted Black American history in efforts to honor that legacy, or even attract tourists, she said, but the Palmetto State has been slower. As an example of a piece of lesser known history, she pointed to the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a group of Black men who joined the Union army after their 1862 liberation.

“When you live in a state where a lot of people don’t know the history you have less likely for the formation of allies saying, ‘No, this is important. We need to know this.’ And so you get the pushback because they think it’s going to usurp something else,” she said.

In some regards, South Carolina has created more mediums for understanding Black history. In Beaufort, a monument of Harriet Tubman was recently unveiled commemorating her role freeing 756 slaves in the Combahee River Raid. The International African American Museum opened in Charleston in 2023. Under Littlefield’s watch, her students are unearthing little-known pieces of Black South Carolina history. 

Michael Allen

Historian Michael Allen stands at the International African American History Museum in 2024.

Still, as Juneteenth passed again without state recognition, Allen thinks about Black history, culture and legacy going untaught.

He points to the recent decision by the S.C. Department of Education to not allow the Advanced Placement African American Studies class in public schools.

“How are we going to train, teach and inform a younger generation of the legacy of the history of the culture when in a school setting that’s not even afforded?” he asked.