NEW YORK -- Juneteenth will be an official holiday for city workers and schoolchildren next year, and New York City will form a new commission to examine its history of racial discrimination, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday.
The mayor said he had authority to order the June 19 holiday for workers and more than 1 million public school pupils, subject to labor negotiations.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when the Union army brought word of the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln declared all slaves free in Confederate territory.
The new Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission will give New Yorkers a platform to discuss their experiences with racism, examine possible discrimination in public policy and recommend changes like removing symbols of racism from public spaces, de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, said in announcing its formation.
McCray, an author and activist, is African American; the mayor is white.
“We are saying officially that we want the truth to come out in the open,” de Blasio said at a press briefing.
The formation of a commission on race will make New York the first major city in the United States to undertake a truth and reconciliation process, de Blasio said. Part of its goal will be to identify any enduring discrimination in public housing, the criminal justice system and other institutions, he said.
Even without it an official holiday in the city, New Yorkers were outside marking the moment. This year’s Juneteenth is the most important and poignant in recent memory, said Shernel Phillips-Williams, who like several others called for the day to become a federal holiday even as they applauded de Blasio’s recognition of it at the city level.
Jacqueline Forbes described the racism she’s endured as a Jamaican immigrant to Queens. She said black history should be taught in more detail in schools so future generations know the meaning of the day. Juneteenth, she said, carries a meaning akin to July 4th for black people.
“Black people came here against their will and made America what it is today,” she said on the Brooklyn Bridge. “This is something we need to celebrate.”
The announcements about the holiday and the commission came a day after local lawmakers demanded the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from City Hall because the Founding Father was a slave owner.
The statue standing in the City Council chambers “is inappropriate and serves as a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country,” five council members wrote in a letter to de Blasio. “It must be removed.”
The proposal “is exactly the kind of thing that this new commission needs to examine,” the mayor said. “It’s time to reevaluate the entire look and feel of this city.”
Removing the Jefferson statue would go too far, said Councilman Robert Holden.
“At this point, you can go after any historical figure it seems,” the Queens Democrat said in a statement. "Yes, we have blemishes in our past, and I can understand wanting to remove Confederate generals’ statues. But where does it end?”
——— Associated Press writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report.