PIERRE, S.D. — Political leaders in South Dakota christened the first-ever nationwide Juneteenth holiday with welcome arms this week.
In Washington, D.C., Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, as well as Rep. Dusty Johnson, cast votes in favor of Juneteenth National Independence Day, commemorating the end of slavery, signed into law by President Biden on Thursday, June 17.
Also on Thursday, Gov. Kristi Noem called the holiday marking when Union soldiers in 1865 told enslaved persons in Texas they were free following the Civil War, a celebration of American's "foundational ideal."
And on Friday, June 18, the state's Democratic Party's chair, Randy Seiler, heralded the bipartisan measure as a sign of "how far we have come as a nation."
But this week South Dakota's legislature also gained a dubious legacy as the only state government in the nation not to formally commemorate Juneteenth prior to the federal passage.
It wasn't for lack of trying.
The bill that came the closest to the governor's desk was introduced by state Sen. Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican, and would've added Juneteenth to 11 other "working holidays" memorialized in state law — such as Peter Norbeck Day and Day of the American Cowboy.
Senate Bill 71 mostly cruised through a Senate committee to the floor and faced opposition only from Democrats — who supported the other bill — and a few Republicans, such as Sen. Ryan Maher, of Isabel, who questioned Bolin on the role of African-Americans in South Dakota history.
"What does this particular legislation have to do with South Dakota history?" asked Maher, suggesting instead the state commemorate the 1876 Battle of Slim Buttes between the U.S. military and Lakota bands led by American Horse.
To Maher's questions, Bolin responded that while a relatively small percentage of the state's population, African-Americans have contributed greatly to South Dakota history, including former Sioux Falls County Commissioner Kenny Anderson and the early film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who homesteaded near Gregory, South Dakota.
The 2010 U.S. Census found a little more than 2% of the state's population is Black. The state does have a legacy for establishing days to recognize the roughly 9% of residents who are Native American. In 1990, the state's legislature unanimously voted to replace Columbus Day in October with Native American Day. South Dakota also recognizes days invoking Wounded Knee and the Battle of Little Bighorn in state law.
Ultimately, the Senate approved SB 71. But after clearing a committee in the House of Representatives, the bill met defeat on the House floor on March 2, just three votes shy of a majority vote. Ironically, three co-sponsors of the bill voted against the measure.
Rep. Nancy York, R-Watertown, recalled that early March vote this week, telling Forum News Service that she'd changed her mind after listening to her friend and colleague, Rep. Tony Randolph, R-Rapid City, the state's only Black legislator.
"Sometimes when a bill is first authored, at first glance, I think, 'Yeah, I think that's a pretty good idea. But then you get into it and you start hearing the discussion and you think, hmmm,'" said York. "We have one Black person [in the chamber], and I always talk to him when it's about things like this."
Reached on Friday, June 18, Rep. Randolph repeated what he told colleagues in opposing a resolution commemorating Black History Month, that he dislikes the way such holidays single out racial identity, emphasizing — in his words — individual groups over collective bonds, such as citizenship.
"I struggle with the idea of taking one group of people and elevating that group of people above everyone else because we're all American citizens," said Randolph, who also opposed SB 71.
Referring to the "national sin of slavery," Randolph went on to suggest that such bills seek inclusion but are themselves guilty of "perpetuating the same [ideas] over and over and over again."
In the end, combined with opposition from seven of the chamber's eight Democrats, South Dakota's best chance at Juneteenth died, 36-to-31.
On Friday, Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, said she had no regrets about opposing SB 71.
"We didn't want a working holiday," said Duba. "We wanted a real holiday." Duba added that after the murder of George Floyd in neighboring Minnesota, and the previous summer's racial reckoning, the distinction of a working holiday "would've been a slap in the face."
That other bill — Senate Bill 89, put forward by Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls — would've seen Juneteenth join more robust, "enumerated" holidays, such as Independence Day and Christmas. But opponents in Senate State Affairs committee, the same one who gave a thumbs-up vote to Bolin's bill, balked, in part because a full holiday might've come with a day-off for workers.
"There is a national movement in Congress to create a national holiday for Juneteenth," said Bolin. "And I'm sure if that is passed, South Dakota will obey that."
The committee voted down the bill, 7-to-1.
By Friday, a morning after Noem announced state workers could take the day off, there'd been an update to a list on a state labor and regulations website.
A new holiday had been added: Juneteenth.