NORRISTOWN — Saying they embrace “diversity and inclusion,” Montgomery County officials are marking Juneteenth as a holiday and closing county offices and giving employees a paid day off.

“Montgomery County embraces diversity and inclusion and believes that all are valued and welcomed. Through mutual respect and understanding, we will work together to achieve equity and inclusion," commissioners Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh and Vice Chairman Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. wrote in a memo sent to county employees late Tuesday.

As such, the commissioners said Friday, June 19, otherwise known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, will be a paid county holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

“Though slavery was abolished, the system of racism and oppression that provided the premise for the horrific treatment of Black people during those times has persisted until today,” Arkoosh and Lawrence, the Democratic majority on the three-member commissioners’ board, wrote in the memo.

“The events of the past few weeks have shown us…that ending systemic racism is a goal we must continue to strive for in all sectors of society. We are committed to that effort here in Montgomery County,” Arkoosh and Lawrence added.

Montgomery County is believed to be one of the first counties in the state to declare Juneteenth a paid county holiday. Juneteenth is not a federal or state holiday.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right,’ so I think this was the right time to do this for our county,” Lawrence, who is African-American, said on Wednesday. “I think it’s important to celebrate the culture and diversity of Montgomery County and that we acknowledge this day, particularly during these turbulent times.”

The decision comes in the wake of numerous marches for racial justice by citizens in local communities from Pottstown to the Main Line and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd while being held down by a Minneapolis police officer’s knee.

“You see the sense of disenfranchisement that some in our community have. I think it’s an important time to acknowledge our history, for healing, but also moving forward for a better future,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said for people “who feel shut out, acknowledgment is important.”

“I think we need to be aware that certain segments of our society have felt that their history has not been acknowledged and so I think this is an important step for the county to do that now,” Lawrence said.

The decision appeared to be appreciated by employees.

“We need our leadership at every level to continue standing with us in our fight for equality. I believe our county observing Juneteenth is one more stride in their continued and sincere undertaking in that fight of ours against hate,” a county employee who identified herself as Jackie wrote to MediaNews Group.

Lawrence will commemorate the day by visiting the Patriots of African Descent Monument in Valley Forge National Historical Park that honors African patriots who served in the American Revolution.

“I want to get there with my family,” said Lawrence, who has taught his two sons, ages 19 and 15, about the significance of Juneteenth. “It’s something that we’ve always acknowledged in the house.”

Lawrence and his family also plan to attend the Juneteenth service sponsored by the Greater Norristown Area Ministerium on Friday evening at Eisenhower Field.

In the memo to employees, Arkoosh and Lawrence explained Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when Union Army General Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states, were free. The order came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

The commissioners pointed out people enslaved in Union-held territory were not freed until the passage of the 13th Amendment several months later on Dec. 18, 1865.

“However, June 19 is an important date in our history and a milestone to end the institution of slavery that goes against our founding ideals of freedom and liberty,” Arkoosh and Lawrence wrote in the memo.

The memo to employees did not include the signature of lone Republican Commissioner Joseph C. Gale, who recently came under fire for remarks he made about the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in Philadelphia.

Contacted Wednesday, Gale claimed he was part of two conference calls with his Democratic colleagues and county senior staff on Tuesday and that there was no discussion about granting a paid holiday.

“The decision was made without my knowledge or consultation. I also was not informed that an email was being sent to the county employees,” Gale said. “It is disheartening that the majority commissioners continue to make unilateral decisions regarding county employees and the use of taxpayer dollars without the input of the minority commissioner.”

Gale added that “at a time when so much partisanship surrounds America’s history and heritage, it is heartening to see people from various backgrounds and upbringings come together” in support of Juneteenth to celebrate the end of slavery in the U.S.

“A core tenet of my Catholic Christian faith and my Republican Party affiliation is the eternal truth that slavery is evil,” Gale said.

During the last two weeks, Gale has been criticized by his colleagues regarding a statement he made about Black Lives Matter, drafted on county letterhead. Arkoosh and Lawrence denounced Gale’s remarks and stressed that Gale’s statement did not reflect the sentiments or opinions of the majority of the commissioners or of county government.

Arkoosh and Lawrence censured Gale for his comments during a commissioners’ board meeting earlier this month.

In a June 1 statement entitled “Riots & Looting In Philadelphia,” written on county letterhead, Gale compared the Black Lives Matter group to “far-left radical enemy combatants.”

“In fact, nearly every major city across the nation was ravaged by looting, violence and arson. The perpetrators of this urban domestic terror are radical left-wing hate groups like Black Lives Matter,” Gale wrote, responding to unrest in Philadelphia during protests.

“This organization, in particular, screams racism not to expose bigotry and injustice, but to justify the lawless destruction of our cities and surrounding communities. Their objective is to unleash chaos and mayhem without consequence by falsely claiming they, in fact, are the victims,” Gale continued.

The elected leaders in several municipalities have raised concerns about Gale’s remarks and demanded he resign. Citizens have also held several rallies at the courthouse, and even marched in front of Gale’s home, seeking his resignation.

Gale has refused to step down and has said he will not be “bullied” for exercising his First Amendment rights.

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