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Juneteenth Commissioner In Texas Reacts To The Holiday Going National


Today is the first official celebration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, it took another 2 1/2 years until the U.S. government could enforce the order in Texas. And while President Biden only signed the bill making this a federal holiday yesterday, Texas has celebrated Juneteenth every year since 1865. Byron E. Miller is Juneteenth commissioner for the Fiesta Celebration in San Antonio, where festivities are in full swing. Thank you for joining us today.

BYRON E MILLER: Well, thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: What was your reaction to Juneteenth being made? Unofficial federal holiday, all 50 states now joining you in the celebration?

MILLER: Well, I was surprised. We've been working for so many years for that to occur - you know, when it happened, it just made me feel as though, well, really exuberant. But with that exuberance, I know I have to temper it because...

SHAPIRO: Why do you have to temper it?

MILLER: Well, because we've been asking for, in many ways, asking for things that relate to justice, and so we get a holiday. We've been asking for reparations, but we get a holiday. And there's something about the fact that the whole Senate unanimously supported and agreed with it. And I just think back - I'm a graduate of Morehouse College of Atlanta, Ga.

SHAPIRO: Historically Black college, yeah.

MILLER: Yeah. And I know what the fight was to get the Martin Luther King Day recognized as a federal holiday. And this came with the greatest of ease to a certain extent. So I don't know if this is something that, you know, it's trying to be a distraction to all the things that are occurring or what. Well, it's interesting.

SHAPIRO: That said, tell us about how you're celebrating this year, because I understand last year's celebrations had to be canceled because of the pandemic.

MILLER: That's correct.

SHAPIRO: And this year, it's happening at the same time as San Antonio's big annual fiesta celebration. So what feels different about this year's commemoration?

MILLER: Well, again, this festival we're doing down here is a celebration of Black culture, legacy, tradition and influence. And so as it is in every year, the 19 of June is the day that we reflect on the knowledge, how far we have come and of our achievements. You know, you asked what's different, well, one thing we've been pretty much in quarantine, in hibernation. And, you know, there are people out today. And it's a hot day in Texas - I want you to know - in San Antonio.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: And people are standing in different lines. And we have to keep them hydrated because it's so hot, and they have not been out in this heat a long time, so...

SHAPIRO: You say this is a celebration of Black culture, and, of course, San Antonio is such a diverse city. What does the crowd look like?

MILLER: Well, today, it's a good crowd because this is our pre-Juneteenth - the 19 of June that we do. And so we have a big fish fry and music - in fact, you can probably hear the music in the background. I'm in a room that's air-conditioned, thank God, behind the stage...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...For just this interview. But you can still hear the music.

SHAPIRO: Well, on top of the music and the fish fry, can you give us a couple of other highlights that you have planned for the weekend?

MILLER: Well, you know, this weekend, again, we have arts type of attractions where kids will do artwork and do something from a cultural perspective. We have - the San Antonio Black Museum is taking oral history and making sure they captured that. We have other organizations that are coming out to give a lot of information, because if you look at my website, one of the things I say is information is the key to freedom. And so this is somewhat of an informational festival. Now, let me just say this, though.

SHAPIRO: I'm afraid we have to run out of time, but Mr. Miller, we really appreciate your joining us. Byron E. Miller is Juneteenth commissioner for the Fiesta Celebration in San Antonio, Texas. And we appreciate your talking with us on such a busy day. Thanks a lot.

MILLER: Well, appreciate you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.