County Board passes Juneteenth ordinance — ‘first step in the healing process’ for Black Americans

The ordinance grants county employees 14 paid holidays, including the June 19 date, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addresses a County Board meeting in 2015. | File Photo.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addresses a County Board meeting in 2015.

Saiyna Bashir/Sun-Times file photo

The Cook County Board of Commissioners at their Thursday meeting unanimously voted to adopt an ordinance to make Juneteenth a paid county holiday for employees, a move one commissioner called a “first step in the healing process for African Americans and all.”

“This year, Cook County, and the nation, have experienced unprecedented racial and civil unrest,” said Stanley Moore, the chief sponsor of the ordinance. “The call for recognizing this … is stronger than ever. This is the first step toward healing for African Americans and for all the Cook County suburbs and our region as a whole.”

Moore said he looks forward to history books reflecting June 19 as an “American Independence Day.”

The ordinance, titled Juneteenth recognized as a Cook County Holiday, grants county employees 14 paid holidays, including June 19, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

In June, the City Council voted to recognize that date — known as Juneteenth — to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States but stopped short of declaring it an official city holiday.

The date is now officially recognized as a ceremonial holiday in 47 states — Texas was the first to declare Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980.

The text of the ordinance recounts the history around the date, noting that while President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, many slave owners in Texas did not release their slaves at the time.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger told slaves of the proclamation, issuing an order that “officially declared the immediate release and freedom of the remainder of slaves located in Texas,” the ordinance reads in part. 

That date has since become one marked by celebration annually.

Other commissioners, including Bill Lowry and Dennis Deer, both from Chicago, also applauded making the date a holiday.

“Now we can ensure that our children’s children will know about Juneteenth,” Deer said. “... Us naming Juneteenth a holiday is really about diversity, equity and inclusion. The slaves that were liberated are now included to celebrate their true independence.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is a former history teacher, said “acknowledging this nation’s troubled history with slavery ... is an important milestone to mark.”

“Historians often talk about slavery as the original sin in this country — it’s enshrined in our Constitution, for heaven’s sakes,” Preckwinkle said Thursday in a news conference following the board meeting.

“Acknowledging the end of slavery was a milestone in our country’s history — although I would argue that what followed slavery was 100 years of serfdom in the South — but, anyway, is an important milestone to mark and I’m grateful that Commissioner Deer and Commissioner Moore worked so hard to make this a county holiday.”

She also voiced support for renaming Columbus Day Indigenous People’s Day in the county — a resolution proposing the change was introduced Thursday by Commissioner Brandon Johnson. Glorifying people like Christopher Columbus was “appalling,” Preckwinkle said.

The board also approved a resolution connected to Preckwinkle’s South Cook Fair Transit pilot program, which will go toward planning studies and the implementation of the pilot program in southern Cook County in collaboration with Metra and Pace.

Those two companies were also the subject of two intergovernmental agreements approved by the county during their last meeting of the year for the fair transit project, which will slash fares on Metra’s electric and Rock Island lines by 50%.

Preckwinkle said those agencies, as well as other transit agencies, have seen “substantial reductions in ridership” because of the coronavirus pandemic.

John Yonan, who serves as the superintendent of the county’s Department of Transportation and Highways, said before March there were ongoing conversations with the president of CTA to join the pilot program, but the city’s transit agency had “some other priorities set in how they viewed their role in this fair transit” pilot, Yonan said.

“We believe it’s OK at this time as we’re monitoring what opening up opportunities for transit options during a pandemic could bring us, and CTA is in the loop on those conversations and will be moving forward,” Yonan said.

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