Metro Atlanta governments grapple with Juneteenth’s new holiday status

While Juneteenth has been celebrated in Texas and among Black communities for more than a century, the holiday has only recently begun to gain widespread adoption — and prompt debates — in Georgia.

A few places, such as Atlanta and some southside cities, began recognizing the holiday in 2020, while the state and several other local governments got on board after it became a federal holiday last year. Gov. Brian Kemp made it a paid state holiday earlier this month after it passed almost unanimously through the state Legislature.

Those earlier efforts didn’t garner much controversy, but it’s become controversial in several cities as elected officials grapple with whether to add June 19 to their annual paid holiday calendars. Tensions over Juneteenth have emerged in Marietta and Tucker, while several cities in Atlanta’s suburbs have yet to try to tackle the topic.

After an effort to make Juneteenth to Tucker’s holiday calendar was shot down, Councilwoman Alexis Weaver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “It feels unnecessarily contentious to choose not to observe it.”

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told they had been freed, more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to end the Civil War. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as the true end of slavery in the United States.

Politics and Juneteenth have begun to intersect in the Atlanta area. In communities that have shifted to being more liberal over the past few years, such as Gwinnett County, Juneteenth propositions have generally passed without much contention.

In contrast, areas that recently underwent elections where longtime conservative-leaning mayors fended off liberal challengers, such as Marietta and Tucker, have seen Juneteenth as another potential wedge issue.

Angelyne Butler, the mayor of Forest Park who oversaw the city adding Juneteenth as a city holiday at the end of 2020, said the topic shouldn’t be contentious, given its significance to the Black community.

“The federal government has already taken the charge for the nation with acknowledging Juneteenth,” Butler said. “So I would expect — I would love to see others fall in place and just acknowledge it as well. You can’t deny history as much as people want to try.”

Failed efforts

Tucker and Marietta saw their Juneteenth holiday efforts fall apart for different reasons.

During a Feb. 15 meeting, the Tucker City Council approved an 11-holiday calendar for the year without adding Juneteenth. Weaver tried to add Juneteenth to the calendar at the last minute but her motion was voted down 5-2.

She told the AJC on Wednesday that she’d prefer to add a 12th city holiday to the calendar rather than replacing an existing holiday, but she said it’s a conversation worth having.

“If the state can do it, if the federal government can do it, I just think that there’s something to be said for acknowledging and closing down (the city) and saying this has a very particular meaning that we should formally acknowledge,” Weaver said.

The city leaders who voted against adding Juneteenth cited the difficulties of closing city services for an additional day. Tucker Mayor Frank Auman, who recently won reelection over a progressive opponent, said he was open to discussing adding Juneteenth as a holiday in the future, but he seemed wary of adding a day that’s historically only been celebrated by a certain group.

“We don’t have any Jewish holidays on our calendar, we don’t have any Muslim holidays on our calendar. We don’t mark women’s right to vote, which (had) its 100th anniversary 18 months ago,” Auman said Feb. 15. “... We need to take a bigger look at the things that people celebrate and the way that we mark them as a city. I think this is a good time to have that discussion, and I’d hate to see us get ahead of ourselves and wish we had handled it differently or given ourselves more restriction.”

On April 13, the Marietta City Council voted 4-3 to add Juneteenth as the city’s 11th paid holiday, but the result was quickly vetoed by longtime Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin, who also defeated a liberal opponent in November. The veto prompted Councilwoman Cheryl Richardson, who sponsored the Juneteenth item, to walk out of the meeting in disgust.

“I will just say that this day will go down in the history of Marietta,” she said as she stood up to leave.

Tumlin, who said he was concerned about adding Juneteenth to a holiday calendar that omits Veterans Day, did not respond to multiple requests to comment by the AJC. However, he told the Marietta Daily Journal after the vote that Veterans Day is “multiple times more inclusive” because “everybody has veterans in their family.”

Juneteenth isn’t going away

Nearby Gwinnett did not run into any obstacles when passing its Juneteenth holiday item this week. The County Board of Commissioners, which switched from being Republican-controlled to consisting of all Democrats over the past few election cycles, voted unanimously to add Juneteenth as the county’s 12th paid holiday.

Fulton and DeKalb counties made Juneteenth a holiday in 2020; Cobb and Clayton approved it in 2021.

Several local governments haven’t publicly discussed closing City Hall for Juneteenth.

Spokespersons for Roswell and Johns Creek said their City Councils have has no formal discussions about Juneteenth as a paid holiday for employees. The spokespersons for Alpharetta and Sandy Springs said their elected officials might discuss the holiday later this year during annual holiday calendar reviews.

Tucker also typically sets its annual holiday calendars in the fall, so Juneteenth’s status will likely be up for debate again this year.

On Wednesday, Auman elaborated to the AJC that he’s excited about the citizen-led Juneteenth Jubilee that’ll take place in the city on June 18, and he reiterated that “There are more and more (holidays) that various demographics, ethnic, religious and other groups are requesting be included, so it will request some serious thought and planning.”

Paid holidays for government workers also come with a cost. In Marietta, City Manager Bill Bruton said each one costs taxpayers about $50,000 to $55,000.

In Forest Park, Butler said she’s surprised Juneteenth has become a lightning rod in certain communities. She said she didn’t want to dictate how another municipality handles its business, but she did say these are votes that residents should not forget.

“I don’t understand why there is a backlash on recognizing Juneteenth at all,” Butler said. “I think ultimately when the people vote, that could be one factor they consider when they’re casting their vote in upcoming elections.”

— AJC reporters Adrianne Murchison and Jillian Price contributed to this article.