Riverside trustees voted unanimously on Feb. 17 to make Juneteenth – the date Black Americans have celebrated for generations to mark the 1865 emancipation of the nation’s last enslaved individuals – an official paid holiday for village employees.
The village joins just a handful of Illinois municipalities that have made Juneteenth, which is celebrated on June 19, an official holiday. Broadview made the date a paid holiday in 2020, while the Oak Park Public Library also officially recognizes Juneteenth as a paid holiday for employees.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation passed by the General Assembly last year to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for state workers and public school teachers, while President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act designating June 19 a holiday for federal employees.
On June 19, 1865 — two months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to end the Civil War and two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the confederacy — Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops landed in Galveston, Texas to enforce General Order No. 3.
The order announced that the enslaved people of Texas were to be freed and given “absolute equality of personal rights” as decreed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
While Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black Americans, the occasion escaped the attention of white America for more than a century.
Texas was the first state in the union to observe Juneteenth in 1980. Florida, Oklahoma and Minnesota followed suit in the 1990s, with another 45 states voting to observe or commemorate Juneteenth after 2000.
The local proposal to seek paid holiday status for Juneteenth came from Village President Joseph Ballerine, whose own personal journey over the past year or so led him to the belief that Riverside should embrace equity and inclusion.
Ballerine said he was encouraged to participate in a Race Conscious Dialogues class in Oak Park, which was an eye-opener.
“It brought this idea to me of privilege, stuff I never thought about,” Ballerine said.
An incident a few years back where one of Ballerine’s sons was stopped by a police officer around midnight for speeding – on his bicycle – was another pivotal moment. The officer reportedly stopped Ballerine’s son because he was wearing a hoodie and a backpack, and because the area had experienced a number of car and garage break-ins.
Ballerine’s son didn’t think the police officer had any reason to stop him or search his backpack, and the officer reportedly was angry when Ballerine’s son got his father on the phone to intervene. But the realization of how lucky his white son was during that incident didn’t dawn on him at the time.
“I was pissed,” Ballerine said. “But it didn’t occur to me until three years later– if my son had been Black he could be dead. That’s when it clicked in.”
Ballerine also began last year actively seeking out municipal leaders in surrounding communities like Broadview, where he struck up a friendship with Mayor Katrina Thompson, and Forest Park, Maywood, Bellwood and Westchester.
He and other Riverside residents participated in the Tour de Proviso bike ride last summer, getting to know their neighbors and their towns. He also urged participation in food and book drives in Proviso Township benefiting residents of neighboring communities.
“I’m trying to get our residents to see other communities,” Ballerine said.
Last year, Ballerine mulled creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission in Riverside, but didn’t quite know how to pull it off. He then learned that Thompson spearheaded an effort in Broadview to have Juneteenth recognized as a paid holiday for village employees.
“I thought to myself, ‘We can do this,’” said Ballerine. Other elected officials in Riverside signaled their support for the idea.
While 2022 will be Riverside’s first official Juneteenth, the date was marked locally in 2020 during a Black Lives Matter march through North Riverside and Riverside. The march ended at Guthrie Park, where one of the march organizers read the Emancipation Proclamation and participants knelt for nearly nine minutes in memory of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in Minneapolis triggered outrage and protests throughout the nation in May and June 2020.