The story of Juneteenth's AB 174: 'A short bill with a mighty purpose'

The passage of AB 174 in 2011 shows how people and a proclamation now come together in Nevada each year in observance of Juneteenth

Harvey Munford

Nevada Assemblyman Harvey Munford was the primary sponsor of AB 174, the Juneteenth legislation passed during the 76th session of the Nevada State Legislature in 2011. The other sponsors of AB 174 were Assemblywoman Dina Neal and Assemblyman Joseph "Joe" Hogan. Photo courtesy of the Montana Football Hall of Fame.

The story of Juneteenth's AB 174: 'A short bill with a mighty purpose'

The passage of AB 174 in 2011 shows how people and a proclamation now come together in Nevada each year in observance of Juneteenth

Nevada Assemblyman Harvey Munford was the primary sponsor of AB 174, the Juneteenth legislation passed during the 76th session of the Nevada State Legislature in 2011. The other sponsors of AB 174 were Assemblywoman Dina Neal and Assemblyman Joseph "Joe" Hogan. Photo courtesy of the Montana Football Hall of Fame.

Harvey Munford

Nevada Assemblyman Harvey Munford was the primary sponsor of AB 174, the Juneteenth legislation passed during the 76th session of the Nevada State Legislature in 2011. The other sponsors of AB 174 were Assemblywoman Dina Neal and Assemblyman Joseph "Joe" Hogan. Photo courtesy of the Montana Football Hall of Fame.

The wording in the Nevada Revised Statutes, 236.033, “Juneteenth,” under “Holidays and Periods of Observance,” added to the 2011 Statues on Page 128 on May 12, 2011, is straightforward and actionable.

What’s interesting about the wording is that it reads unlike many other of the passages in the NRS. There is no mistaking its precise lawyerly phrasing, of course. But within the phrasing, there is a strong suggestion of something more. It feels as if this particular NRS directly melds people and the lawful power of a proclamation together.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEVADA, REPRESENTED IN SENATE AND ASSEMBLY, DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:

Section 1.  Chapter 236 of NRS is hereby amended by adding thereto a new section to read as follows:

  1. The Governor shall annually proclaim June 19 to be “Juneteenth Day” in the State of Nevada to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States.
  2. The proclamation must call upon the news media, educators and appropriate governmental officers to bring to the attention of Nevada’s residents the historical significance of the day when the last slaves in the United States were emancipated and the significant contributions of African-Americans to the State.

Sec. 2.  This act becomes effective upon passage and approval.

As Nevada approaches June 19, 2020, the events of 2011, what was said and what was acted upon in Carson City during the 76 th session of the Nevada State Legislature in creating and eventually passing legislation setting forth a day of statewide observance of Juneteenth, are instructive to remember.

Three members of the Nevada State Assembly made a longtime effort by many before them a reality when the Juneteenth legislation made Nevada the 39 th state to recognize an official observance of one of the most important dates in American history.

JUNETEENTH’S IMPORTANCE

According to numerous historical sources, Juneteenth is a day of commemoration for the day freedom was proclaimed to all slaves in the south. Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, read the orders that all enslaved people in Texas were free. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation notes that Granger’s words were “more than two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln.” Texas was the most far-removed of the slave states. Enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in the state had been sporadic until June 19, 1865’s pronouncement. According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Juneteenth has also been known as Emancipation Day, Emancipation Celebration, Freedom Day, Jun-Jun, Juneteenth Independence Day and Juneteenth National Freedom Day.

THE KEY ASSEMBLY PLAYERS

Together, Harvey Munford, Dina Neal and Joseph Hogan represented a divergence of backgrounds that speak to how well members of our elected bodies can come together in crafting legislation. Two were African American. One was white. Two were well along in their political lives. One was only just starting out.

I personally saw the abuses that this man went through when he played basketball for my team, the names he was called and the things that were thrown at him and the misunderstanding the people of Montana had because of his ethnicity.

Harvey Munford was a trailblazer. As a young man during the early 1960s he had traveled from Akron, Ohio, and played collegiate football and basketball at Montana State University Billings (then known as Eastern Montana College). The road to becoming the first African American to first attend and then to graduate from Montana State Billings wasn’t easy. There was a restaurant in Butte, Montana that didn’t offer him service. There were threats and foul language hurled at him on road trips. A classmate, Lonnie Shields, who would go on to become a lobbyist for the Nevada Association of School Administrators, recalled the racially tinged abuse Munford faced: “On a personal level, I went to college with Assemblyman Munford at Eastern Montana College. I personally saw the abuses that this man went through when he played basketball for my team, the names he was called and the things that were thrown at him and the misunderstanding the people of Montana had because of his ethnicity.”

At 6'7", Munford was drafted by the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and signed by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Ultimately, Munford chose a different path. For more than 30 years, he taught high school on Las Vegas’ Westside, primarily as a government teacher. For years, as part of the “Close-Up” program, Munford would accompany students on trips to Washington, D.C., so they could view government in action. He was elected to the Nevada State Assembly in 2004, representing District 6, and served through 2016.

“By learning about each other’s culture, misunderstandings and ignorance could be combated,” Nevada political commentator Ray Hagar wrote of the way Munford once termed his primary duty as a legislator. At age 79, Munford remains deeply involved in the life of the people of Clark County and Las Vegas. In March, he participated in a virtual panel in commemorating the 60 th anniversary of the end of racial segregation in Las Vegas sponsored by the Historic Westside Chamber of Commerce.

Dina Neal was also a trailblazer. She was the daughter of one of the most influential legislators in Nevada history, Sen. Joe Neal. In 1972, Joe Neal became the first African American elected to the Nevada State Senate. For 32 years as an elected official, Neal “demanded a focus on the community that was unprecedented in those times in politics,” said his biographer, John L. Smith. Dina Neal, in honoring her father’s historic footsteps, also has clearly forged her own identity and accomplishments in the legislative arena. Dina Neal was first elected to the Assembly, representing North Las Vegas District 7, in 2010, becoming the first African American woman elected to the Assembly.

A graduate of Chaparral High School in Las Vegas and of Southern University Law School, she has shown a talent for the detail-oriented work of the Assembly, serving as chairwoman of the Taxation Committee, while broadening her scope of work beyond business, transportation and jobs to important healthcare legislation. During the 2019 session, her sponsorship led to passage of AB 254, an historic bill that addresses the disparities of those who suffer from Sickle Cell Disease in Nevada. Neal is the Democratic Party’s nominee for November’s general election for the Nevada State Senate seat for District 4 – her father’s old Senate seat.

Joseph “Joe” Hogan, representing the people of Assembly District 10, was the one who at first glance didn’t necessarily have a personal stake in the Juneteenth legislation. A closer look at Hogan’s life, however, reveals a life dedicated to fighting for people whose voices weren’t always heard. Hogan, who was white, worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense, NASA and the Department of Labor, before retiring and moving to Las Vegas. Hogan’s affiliations included the National Urban League, Common Cause, ACLU and the League of Women Voters. Elected to the Assembly in 2004, he was known to fight hard for many of the right issues before they became commonplace. Steve Sebelius wrote of Hogan, a five-term Assemblyman who passed away in October 2014 following a stroke: “Joe Hogan had guts … Nevada’s Legislature doesn’t have enough iconoclasts, people of courage who stand up for doing the right thing, even and perhaps especially when they must face long odds to do it.”

THE BILL: AB 174

Assembly Bill 174 was introduced in the Assembly on Feb. 16, 2011 and “Designates June 19 as Juneteenth Day in Nevada” by Assembly members Munford, Neal and Hogan, with Munford as primary sponsor. It was read for the first time then and referred to the Assembly’s Government Affairs Committee.

On March 11, the Government Affairs Committee hearings were held in Room 3143 of the Legislative Building. The meeting was chaired by Assemblywoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick. The committee heard testimony from the bill’s primary sponsor, Harvey Munford. Reading from prepared remarks, Munford noted the disparities that history books throughout America had offered of the experience of black people in America.

“Virtually all American history textbooks go into the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln issued on Sept. 22, 1862,” Munford said. “But although the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, it had little immediate effect on the daily lives of most slaves, especially those living in the Confederate States of America.

“Fewer history books note that on June 18, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and actually enforce the emancipation of its slaves.

Assembly Bill 174 is a short bill with a mighty purpose. It requires the Governor to proclaim June 19 as Juneteenth Day in the state each year to commemorate the abolition of slavery in our country.

“On June 19, 1865, Granger stood on a balcony and read aloud ‘General Order No. 3,’ which states in part, ‘The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, that all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.’

“Former slaves in Galveston took to the streets in joy that day. Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas the following year. Since then, 35 additional states have enacted laws to recognize the symbolic importance of this date.”

Munford concluded, “Juneteenth and the historical event it honors are – or should be – of great and enduring importance to African-Americans, many of whose ancestors were slaves, and, to any person, of any color, who prizes – and wants to preserve – equality and justice in this nation.”

Deborah Evans, state director of the Nevada Juneteenth Committee, also testified.

In part, she said, “We are asking that the contributions of blacks in the State of Nevada, documented to being business and property owners in Virginia City in 1866, their contributions to mining, and early development of Nevada, the role of the black cowboys and the contributions of their collective descendants, in the building of the State of Nevada, be recognized and taught to our youth. … We are asking for recognition of Nevada’s black residents’ historical significance and acknowledgment of the full spectrum of African-American achievements and accomplishments to Nevada since June 19, 1865, by the news media, educators and appropriate government offices.”

Who would have thought 40 years ago we would be in this legislative committee hearing a Juneteenth bill?

On March 28, the committee, from a motion by Assemblyman John Ellison, voted “Do Pass” for AB 174, which “would require the Governor to declare June 19 th each year as Juneteenth Day to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the United States.”

At 11:37 a.m. during a vote on April 1, 2011, the members of the Nevada State Assembly voted unanimously, 42-0, for the passage of AB 174.

On April 27, 2011, the Senate Government Affairs, committee, chaired by Sen. John Lee, convened at 9:09 a.m. in Room 2135 of the Legislative Building. The first agenda item that morning was AB 174.

Munford again gave testimony, noting that, “Assembly Bill 174 is a short bill with a mighty purpose. It requires the Governor to proclaim June 19 as Juneteenth Day in the state each year to commemorate the abolition of slavery in our country. The Governor’s proclamation must call upon news media, educators and appropriate governmental officers to bring to the attention of Nevada residents the historical significance of the emancipation of slaves in the United States and the significant contributions of African Americans to the State.”

In questions after Munford’s remarks, Sen. Michael Schneider, who had graduated from Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School as well as UNLV, noted that, “Who would have thought 40 years ago we would be in this legislative committee hearing a Juneteenth bill?”

Munford elaborated on Schneider’s seemingly obscure comment.

“About 40 years ago, I taught an African Studies class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and the class touched on the subject of Juneteenth,” he said. “The class was an experimental class at UNLV to present an ethnic studies program, and one area was African Studies. The class makeup was entirely African American students, except for one white student, and that student was Senator Schneider. The class was an experience and later became controversial. It was around 1974, a time following the 1960s and only six years after the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. I commend Senator Schneider for taking that step to get an understanding of the history and culture of African Americans.”

On a motion from Schneider, the committee, eschewing the normal protocol of moving the bill to a work session, instead voted unanimously to “Do Pass” AB 174.

On May 2, 2011, at 11:53 a.m., the Nevada State Senate voted unanimously, 21-0, for final passage of AB 174.

Governor Brian Sandoval signed the bill on May 12, 2011.

In proclamations that have been issued since by Nevada Governors Brian Sandoval and Steve Sisolak, the language often cites not only the historical significance of Juneteenth, but the strength of all African Americans through “extreme adversity, hardship and triumph.”

THE AFTERMATH OF JUNETEENTH's AB 174

Much work still remains to be done. Juneteenth is officially recognized or observed in more than 40 states. Earlier this week Virginia passed legislation declaring Juneteenth a state holiday, joining Texas as the only other state to do so. A resolution declaring Juneteenth Independence Day a national holiday is still in the United States House of Representatives. A petition started by 93-year-old Opal Lee, requesting action on making Juneteenth Independence Day a national holiday has amassed more than 290,000 signatures and is growing daily.

Juneteenth National holiday online petition

National Juneteenth Observance Foundation

Find out about the University’s African American pioneers, who were members of the Wolf Pack football team during the 1940s and who helped break the nation’s segregation barriers in college football.

Read longtime Nevada sportswriter Joe Santoro’s Nevada Appeal article about the Wolf Pack’s 1940s African American pioneers.

Editor’s Note: All quotes and information in this story were taken from public and historical records, including committee minutes, agendas, committee assignments and bill histories of the 76th session of the Nevada State Legislature, as well as newspaper and radio interviews from the Reno Gazette-Journal, Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada Appeal, the Montana Football Hall of Fame and Nevada Public Radio.

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