On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, bearing news that had taken six long months to wend its way through the South: Congress had passed the 13th Amendment freeing American slaves.
It became a day of celebration known as Juneteenth, now commemorated in 46 states. Pennsylvania is the latest, a legislative victory Carolyn Mills fought for over most of a decade.
The Harrisburg woman didn’t live to see her dream realized. But her son, Third District International Representative Larry Mills, was there in her stead this past June 19 as Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill making “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” a state holiday.
“It meant the world to me,” said Mills, past business manager of Reading, Pa., Local 777. “I regretted my mother wasn’t there to see it, but I know she was there in spirit.”
Inspired by her brother’s success establishing a Juneteenth holiday in Iowa, Carolyn Mills approached Pennsylvania state Rep. Sue Helm in 2010. As reported by Harrisburg’s Patriot News, Helm never forgot her constituent’s words, spoken years before the cancer diagnosis that took her life last October.
“Before I die,” Mills told Helm, “I want this to be a law.”
Over years of legislative starts and stops, Mills’ health deteriorated. When she entered hospice care, “She looked at Rep. Helm and said, ‘Please don’t give up,’” Larry Mills said.
Helm and her allies charged ahead, winning unanimous bipartisan support for the bill in the House and Senate.
The rocky road to victory took eight years longer than the fast lane that opened up for Larry Mills’ uncle, Gary Lawson, in Iowa.
Lawson had been coordinating Juneteenth celebrations in Des Moines for a decade when he met with the chairman of the Iowa Senate’s state government committee in 2001 about making June 19 an official holiday. With both parties on board, lawmakers put it on the state calendar within a year.
Carolyn Mills couldn’t have imagined how much more complicated things would be in Pennsylvania.
She’d come home with a mission after traveling to Iowa with her son for one of Lawson’s festivals in the early 2000s. “They came out and observed all the activity and enjoyed it,” her brother said. “She was encouraged and inspired to do likewise in Pennsylvania. It was all grassroots at first, knocking on doors.”
Soon, Mills had set up a foundation and was building support among community and business leaders. By the time she went to Helm, she’d created a movement. Her work was far from done, but her resolve was never in doubt.
“This is her legacy,” Larry Mills said. “Mom was very involved in community service and the church, and more than anything she wanted a special day for African-Americans. She had a dream of making Juneteenth state law and she never gave up.”
His uncle noted with pride that “we’re the only known siblings who have each worked on this in our individual states. Even though my sister’s gone, we’ll always have that connection.”
They grew up in a big family with a rags-to-riches father who didn’t let a second-grade education get in the way of business success. He gave back to his community, and so have his children.
For Carolyn Mills that included many years as an AFSCME steward while working in state government.
“She was always trying to make a better workplace and create opportunities for everyone,” Larry Mills said. “That rubbed off on me. I carry those values with me every day.”