Sen. Randolph Bracy’s Juneteenth bill is meant to honor Black history, but historians aren’t having it.
There were no racist undertones in opposition to Bracy’s bill, though there had been in a past committee meeting. During the Senate Rules Committee meeting Friday, the bill passed despite a parade of people speaking in opposition, all of them offended at the date selected to celebrate emancipation in Florida.
Juneteenth Day commemorates the end of slavery and is observed by 47 states on June 19.
Bracy’s bill (SB 490) would designate June 19 as the legal Juneteenth Day holiday in Florida.
But the path to emancipation was staggered across the nation. June 19 is the day emancipation was announced in Texas, and is commonly used to celebrate emancipation across the nation. But in Florida, emancipation was announced on the steps of the Knott House in Tallahassee on May 20, 1865.
To accommodate the distinction, Bracy included an acknowledgment of May 20 in the bill’s language.
But the acknowledgment is not proving to be enough. The bill continues to be cut down by historians at every committee meeting. They were passionate enough about the topic Friday to dash a suggestion made by Committee Chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo that speakers should either wave in support or opposition for each bill due to an agenda-packed committee meeting.
“Why should the Florida Legislature ignore true Florida history?” Lonnie Mann, an officer for the Panhandle Archaeological Society, asked. “Let’s not make May 20th a consolation prize as this does.”
Wearing a Texas flag bowtie, which he called an “ironic statement,” Bob Holladay, president of the Tallahassee Historical Society and American history professor at Tallahassee Community College, testified against the bill.
“It undermines the whole notion of historical truth and historical accuracy,” Holladay said. “It’s a catchy title that comes out of Texas.”
But for Black Floridians whose families had been celebrating May 20, some for more than a century, the issue is more personal than precise.
Mary Miaisha Mitchell from the Greater Frenchtown Front Porch Florida Revitalization Council painted a picture of a community-wide celebration the 75-year-old has known since childhood.
“This, for me, was a real experience. Unlike the adverse childhood experiences we often hear about with our families, this was not negative. This was one of the most profound and fond memories that I had in my childhood with me, my siblings, my family and my community,” Mitchell said.
Michael Johnson said he completed a documentary on Florida’s May 20 Emancipation Day.
“We’re not the Lone Star State. Floridians are not represented by Juneteenth. Florida is its own state, represented by its own people, with its own flag and its own history,” Johnson said. “As long as I can remember back to my days where I’m from in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, we always celebrated Florida’s Emancipation Day being May 20, 1865.”
The comments from the speakers were enough to get a bit of a concession out of Bracy.
“If the folks here would like that day to also be a legal holiday, I’ll consider that amendment on the floor. I’ll just say that 47 other states recognize Juneteenth.” Bracy said.
But Sen. Bobby Powell said he was encouraged that the conversation in the committee meeting is about splicing historical hairs and not part of a larger conversation across the state Powell has heard about whether black history should be celebrated in Florida.
“Most of it is not based on the fact that it’s the wrong date. Most of the conversations are based on the fact that why should we recognize such a date in the history of Florida,” Powell said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has previously said critical race theory “teaches kids to hate our country.”
The bill is ready for the Senate floor.
House companion legislation (HB 185) has not been heard in any of its three assigned committees.
An original version of the Senate bill designated the day a paid holiday for state employees, but Bracy removed that from the bill at an earlier committee stop due to financial concerns from committee members.