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Salt Lake County Kicks Off Juneteenth Holiday Celebration

Photo of Juneteenth event attendees and organizers.
Emily Means / KUER
People gathered outside the Salt Lake County Government Center Friday morning for a flag-raising ceremony, in honor of Juneteenth.

Salt Lake County raised the red, white and blue Juneteenth flag at a ceremony Friday morning, where Mayor Jenny Wilson proclaimed the county’s support of the holiday. Juneteenth — a mashup of the words June and nineteenth — commemorates the day when the last enslaved people were freed in 1865. 

Photo of Juneteenth flag.
Credit Emily Means / KUER
Salt Lake County raised the Juneteenth flag — color blocked in red and blue with a white star in the middle — outside the county government building Friday. The flag is meant to symbolize freedom and new beginnings with a burst representing a nova, or new star, and the arc representing a horizon.

Betty Sawyer has run Utah’s Juneteenth Freedom and Heritage Festival for three decades. But Sawyer said when she moved to the state from Baltimore many years ago, she didn’t even know what Juneteenth was.

“We celebrated [Kunta Kinte] Day in Maryland,” Sawyer said. “So once I became involved, it was important that I help educate other people.”

This year’s festival theme is “United in Hope.” Sawyer said it seems fitting.

“We didn’t know we were going to be in the midst of COVID-19,” she said. “We didn’t know that we were going to be in the midst of civil unrest.”

Photo of Betty Sawyer.
Credit Emily Means / KUER
Betty Sawyer has run Utah’s Juneteenth Freedom and Heritage Festival for 31 years. She said she'll push the state Legislature to make Juneteenth a paid holiday in the state.

On Friday afternoon, other groups organized a rally and block party in Salt Lake City to commemorate the holiday and protest racial injustice. There’s also a live-streamed Juneteenth concerton Friday night. Some events that are part of the official Juneteenth Freedom and Heritage Festival lineup include a “State of Black Utah” virtual town hall Friday evening and a commemorative caravan on Saturday morning.

The recent movement around anti-racism and police reform has led to a greater awareness of the Juneteenth celebration, including from Utah’s delegation in Washington. 

At the county’s ceremony, Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, reflected on the meaning of Juneteenth in the context of recent events. He called on Americans to work toward a more equal and just society.

“Juneteenth must now be a day of national action and a day of reckoning for all of us,” McAdams said.

Rep. Christ Stewart, R-Utah, tweeted in support of the and there’s a push to make it a national holiday. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, tweeted his support Friday for designating it as a federal holiday.

Utah has recognized Juneteenth as a day of observance since 2016, but Sawyer said she wants to push the governor and state Legislature to make it a paid holiday.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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