WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump took credit for widespread recognition of Juneteenth, which commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation, after drawing backlash for his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally originally scheduled for the same date.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump claimed that “nobody had ever heard of” the June 19 holiday before the controversy surrounding his rally, which he later moved to June 20.
“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump said. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”
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June 19 is the holiday commemorating the date in 1865 when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to inform residents that President Abraham Lincoln had freed enslaved people in rebel states more than two years earlier and that enslavers had to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, told USA TODAY the first known Juneteenth celebrations began in 1866 and spread across the country as African Americans migrated to new cities.
Trump’s initial rally date and location drew condemnation as an insensitive gesture in the wake of weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality and racism in America after the death of George Floyd, who was pinned by the neck by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Many pointed out that Tulsa is also the site of one of the worst massacres of Black Americans in the country’s history, which took place in 1921. Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa will be his first big event in months since lockdowns over the coronavirus began.
The president changed the rally date after days of controversy, he said, “out of respect” for Juneteenth after Black “friends and supporters” requested he do so.
Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he was made aware of the meaning of Juneteenth after his campaign had already set the rally date, and that he was informed by a Black Secret Service agent.
Significance of Tulsa:Trump rally moved from Juneteenth but remains on edge of 1921 Black massacre site
He said he asked several people around him whether they had heard of the holiday, and they said they hadn’t. Trump asked an aide during his interview with the Wall Street Journal, and she told him the White House had put out a statement commemorating Juneteenth last year. The White House has done so the past three years of his presidency.
“Oh really? We put out a statement? The Trump White House put out a statement?” Trump said. “OK, OK. Good.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., ridiculed Trump for his claim on Twitter: “Retweet if you’d heard of Juneteenth,” she said.
Today, 47 states and Washington, D.C., recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday. In light of the nation’s anti-racism protests, many companies have announced paid holidays for their employees on June 19 for the first time as the country also grapples with the fate of Confederate symbols.
Trump has come out strongly against the renaming of military bases that are named for Confederate generals as Democrats press for the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol and some locations across the country announce they are removing statues.
He hasn’t asked his Black supporters or the Secret Service agent who told him about Juneteenth what they think about renaming military bases, he told the Wall Street Journal.
Trump said he’s looking forward to getting back to the campaign trail, though health officials have warned large events could pose the risk of the spread of COVID-19. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said it is each individual’s choice whether to wear a mask provided at the rally and whether to attend despite social distancing guidelines.
“It’s going to be a hell of a night,” Trump said.