On Tuesday, Deerfield Beach unanimously passed a resolution to make Juneteenth an official city holiday.
While the commission unanimously agreed on recognizing the importance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of people who were enslaved in the United States, debate ensued over the cost of adding the new holiday. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put financial stress on municipalities across South Florida.
Deerfield Beach has about 80,000 residents, 27% of whom are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The resolution was introduced by District 2 Commissioner Ben Preston, the only Black member of the city commission and the city’s first Black firefighter.
“Juneteenth is not only the day that slavery officially ended in America,” Preston said. “It was on that historic day that Black people in America became, truly became, Americans. Prior to that, they were not.”
Juneteenth references June 19, 1865, when African Americans enslaved in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom and the end of the Civil War, two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia and more than two and a half years after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln.
Preston said that while he celebrates July 4, there is is an underlying knowledge that Independence Day does not mark freedom for Black Americans, who were enslaved for nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
Preston met some opposition from Mayor Bill Ganz and District 4 Commissioner Todd Drosky over the $110,000 price tag of designating Juneteenth a citywide holiday. The cost would cover both paid time off for city employees and holiday pay for those employees who are unable to suspend operations for holidays, said City Manager David Santucci.
Preston wanted to push ahead with a vote on his original proposal, which would incur the extra cost of creating a new holiday. But Ganz wanted to find a compromise, insisting he wanted to see a unanimous commission vote on something so important.
Eventually, a compromise emerged: The city manager has an extra holiday he or she can give to city employees on a flexible basis. Santucci said that holiday is usually reserved for Christmas time, when employees could pick a day over the course of a few weeks to cash in the extra paid time off.
Now, employees will all be given the same vacation date: Juneteenth.
Preston, who eventually agreed to the compromise and amended his motion to approve the resolution, told the Miami Herald he was disappointed the resolution didn’t pass in its original form. He said he wanted the proposal to meet zero opposition.
“I wanted to look past that,” Preston said of the financial cost of adding the holiday. “The debate was very challenging, it was very strenuous, it was tough. But it was a debate that needed to be had.”
During the meeting, Preston said the social cost of not celebrating Juneteenth as a citywide holiday was greater than the debated fiscal cost.
Vice Mayor Bernie Parness agreed, comparing the cost to the city losing money on running its summer camps at a cost feasible for lower-income kids.
“It’s not the money. It’s the respect,” Parness said. “Since this country was founded, there was no respect shown to the African-American community. And a lot of it’s going on today. And it has to stop.”
Preston told the Miami Herald he was motivated to propose the Juneteenth holiday by recent anti-racism demonstrations across the country, where he said he could see people of all races joining together to protest. The death of George Floyd, after a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis for nearly nine minutes, sparked national protests against racism and police brutality.
“There is nobody that’s sitting on the dais right now that have felt what I’ve felt. I’ve seen, I’ve been turned away for service because of my color. Can anybody up there say ... you know what that feels like?” Preston said during the meeting. “All that Black Americans want to do is be a part of the true experience of being an American. That’s all. That’s all. And what does that cost to say no?”
Ganz said he was concerned that passing a resolution designating a new holiday would “blindside” residents.
“Instead of bringing people together, they’re going to look at this and say you just gave a free vacation to our city employees,” Ganz said. “The people that are paying that salary, they still have to go to work on that day. They don’t get to celebrate that day. And many of them don’t understand that holiday.”
Ganz told the Miami Herald he wants to set aside some money to give Juneteenth “its proper due,” including funding banners, social media outreach and educational efforts.
Miami Beach formally celebrated Juneteenth for the first time this year with a tree planting ceremony. And the city of Miami passed a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to designate Juneteenth a federal holiday. But Juneteenth is not an official holiday in either city, nor is it an official Broward County holiday.
Staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this story.