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Betty Sawyer’s push to boost profile of Juneteenth yielding results

By Tim Vandenack - | Mar 8, 2022

Photo supplied, Betty Sawyer

The Utah Senate on Friday, March 4, 2022, passed House Bill 238, which would make Juneteenth a state holiday. Betty Sawyer, who heads the Ogden Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pushed for the measure. She's on the left in the photo, taken Friday at the Utah Capitol. With her, from left, are Utah Sen. Luz Escamilla, Rep. Sandra Hollins and Sen. Jani Iwamoto, Democratic lawmakers who also pushed for the measure.

OGDEN — For 33 years, Betty Sawyer has pushed to increase the profile of Juneteenth, helping organize activities to mark the day each year and lobbying, on and off, to make it a state and federal holiday.

Last Friday marked a big milestone in the efforts — the Utah Senate unanimously approved House Bill 238, meant to make Juneteenth a state holiday. The Utah House responded, concurring with Senate tweaks in a 71-1 vote.

“I’m really excited,” said Sawyer, head of the Ogden Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It’s an opportunity for Utah to take the lead in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion across the country.”

Sawyer, contacted Monday, didn’t single-handedly pushed through HB 238, which, she says, has the backing of Gov. Spencer Cox. Utah Rep. Sandra Hollins, a Salt Lake City Democrat, sponsored the measure.

But the Ogden advocate for the African-American community has helped raise the profile of Juneteenth in Utah by organizing events each year to mark the day, working through the Utah Juneteenth Festival and Holiday Committee. She’s also worked with Utah lawmakers over the years in pushing for legislation to boost the profile of Juneteenth, important in the Africa-American community and deemed the nation’s “second Independence Day” by the Juneteenth Foundation. She testified on behalf of HB 238 when Utah House members were considering it earlier in the 2022 session.

BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo

Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden chapter of the NAACP, speaks at the NAACP Freedom Fund luncheon at the Eccles Conference Center on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Sawyer awarded Jacarri Kelley, leader of Northern Utah Black Lives Matter, the NAACP's James H. Gillespie Civil Rights Worker of The Year Award.

Juneteenth, officially June 19, marks the end of slavery in the United States, more specifically the day — June 19, 1865 — when a Union Army contingent informed a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, they they were free. Utah lawmakers approved a measure in 2016 that calls for commemorating the day on the third Saturday each June. HB 238 takes things a step further, giving state workers a day off from work to mark Juneteenth.

“I believe this is another opportunity for us to live out those values that we have stated,” Sawyer said, alluding to creation in late 2020 of the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Juneteenth, she added, is “a unifying event to celebrate our freedoms in the country.”

The Utah Compact, launched by then-Gov. Gary Herbert and other leaders from across the state on Dec. 15, 2020, is a framework of anti-racist principles and actions. The Ogden City Council on Jan. 5, 2021, approved a resolution committing to the compact.

All U.S. states commemorate Juneteenth in some way, but Utah would become one of only nine or 10 that make the day a state holiday, according to Sawyer. The holiday would be on June 19 if the day is a Monday or the Monday before June 19 if Juneteenth falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. If June 19 is a Saturday or Sunday, the Juneteenth observance would be the following Monday.

President Joe Biden signed a measure last year making the day a federal holiday.

Sawyer hopes Cox can take part in a ceremonial signing of HB 238 during Juneteenth activities this year. The Utah Juneteenth Festival is set for June 18 and 19 at the Ogden Amphitheater.

Either way, efforts to recognize Juneteenth have traversed an up-and-down road.

A proposed 2006 joint resolution to recognize Juneteenth Independence Day in Utah on June 17, 2006, fizzled. The next year, then-Utah Rep. Neil Hansen, an Ogden Democrat, sponsored a measure to make Juneteenth a commemorative day in Utah. It passed 44-24 in the House but never got a vote by the full Senate and faded.

“We were always pushing for a holiday or observance, whichever we could get,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer, working with Hollins, the Salt Lake City lawmaker, helped promote the 2016 measure that successfully made Juneteenth a commemorative day. Sawyer had proposed legislative efforts last year to make Juneteenth a state holiday, but Hollins said the timing wasn’t right.

Sawyer approached Hollins again, leading to to House and Senate approval of HB 238.

“As an advocate, you spend a lot of days planning,” Sawyer said. You never know when efforts will yield results, though, “until the time comes.”

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