Gov. Gordon signs Juneteenth holiday bill

WYOMING – Following an overwhelming vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, President Joe Biden signed a law last week that recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon followed by signing a proclamation recognizing the date’s significance – which commemorates the end of slavery.

Wyoming has recognized Juneteenth as a holiday since the state legislature passed a bill in 2003. It’s one of 47 states, and the District of Columbia, to do so.

As a result of President Biden’s signing, June 18 became a holiday for most federal employees, per the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Wyoming’s legislature sets state holidays and while June 18 hasn’t been established as a state holiday, Gov. Gordon’s office said he will work with lawmakers to consider this option for future years.

“Freedom is always a cause for celebration and this is a momentous day in our nation’s history,” Gov. Gordon said. “I encourage people to observe this commemoration of the full enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, which embodies the values of all Americans.”

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney was one of the 415 representatives to vote in favor of the bill in the House. The bill passed through the Senate earlier last week without debate.

Juneteenth has also been known as Emancipation Day and was born out of the events of June 19, 1865. On that day, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans that the Civil War ended and they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln two years prior. The proclamation ended slavery only in states that seceded and the country, as a whole, didn’t abolish slavery until the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted in December 1865.

Wyoming, which wouldn’t achieve statehood until nearly 50 years later, has been home to multiple hate crimes since it was first settled well after the Civil War.

Joe Martin, a Black man, was forcibly taken from the Albany County Jail and lynched on the corner of Sixth Street and Grand Avenue by vigilantes on Aug. 29, 1904. Newspapers at the time reveled in the scene with the Wyoming Tribune at the time writing, “A hundred willing hands seized the noose...” Among those confirmed in attendance of the lynching were state Sen. William Freeze and county commissioner Nellis Corthell.

Martin’s death preceded the mass exodus of Empire, Wyoming, a largely Black community. One of the founding townspeople, Baseman Taylor, grew paranoid and threatened by racial tensions in 1913. His family requested he be sent to the Wyoming Hospital for the Insane for treatment. Documents at the time show Taylor didn’t resist when taken into custody but the Goshen County sheriff used excessive force, causing a brain injury. Taylor immediately suffered from seizures. He was shackled to a bed and was beaten, burned, choked and abused. He died after three days in custody. The submitted death certificate at the time reported “preexisting medical conditions” for his cause of death.

By 1930, the initial all-Black farm settlement along the Wyoming-Nebraska border dwindled to four Black residents.

Scholar Todd Guenther has said that by the 1910s Wyoming was lynching Black men at a rate 30 times higher as was occurring in the deep South at the same time.