“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
These words were read by Union soldiers on June 19, 1865 in deep Confederate territory, Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed two and a half years prior, this day is heralded as the ending of slavery.
In the 155 years since, there have been celebrations large and small around the country to commemorate this occasion with a name that combines June and 19th: Juneteenth. All states besides three (Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota) observe this holiday in some form. As of early June 2020 only two states had taken it further; Texas officially designated it as a state holiday in 1980 and New Hampshire did the same in 2019.
This year’s lead up to the holiday has been unlike others based on increased awareness and action from individuals, branches of government, and companies.
Why Juneteenth is getting more attention than usual
The sustained protests around the world are asking for freedom from violence, which has been a persistent reality for the Black community since even before Black people stepped foot on what would become the United States of America.
This consistent demand for equality has caught corporate America’s attention as they are trying to quickly come up with ways to support the Black community. One method that companies from all sectors (retail, tech, education, media) have come up with is acknowledging Juneteenth and even pledged to give employees the day off.
There are many reactions to this swift embrace of a holiday that occurred for the past 154 years with minimal attention paid to it outside of the Black community. Some felt like companies were taking notice of the holiday simply because taking a stand and caring about Black history had become trendy. But others find it to be a “better late than never” situation.
Regardless of any potential ulterior motives, everyone has the day off for Independence Day, when a large percentage of America’s inhabitants were not free. It only makes sense to also celebrate the day when millions of Americans were finally released from bondage as well.
Juneteenth 2020 comes at a time of massive change. The first Juneteenth was a day for freedom after hundreds of years of abuse. While the Black community has made many strides since then, there is still work to do, as evidenced by a near constant stream of police brutality against Black people. For the first time we saw reactions and action from the country’s largest companies, both condemning racism and making specific plans for improving racial diversity among their staff.
Noliwe Rooks, author and professor focused on race and gender at Cornell University, pinpointed the extra meaning of Juneteenth 2020 in The New York Times. She said, “As a holiday, Juneteenth perfectly encapsulates this moment which is almost equal parts anger over the reminders of how little regard there has generally been for Black life, health and freedom, and the totally unexpected reality that fundamental change has come.”
It appears that much of the United States has just recently learned of Juneteenth’s existence, but acknowledging and honoring the day when Black Americans gained their independence is still a step towards addressing and healing structural racism. Could major corporations be entering the conversation and celebration for the wrong reasons? This is very possible. But if it’s done correctly, then remembering the dismantling of slavery can serve as an impetus for working toward a more equal country.
The future of Juneteenth
Will Juneteenth become a national holiday? Ninety-three year old Opal Lee of Texas sure hopes so, as hundreds of thousands have already signed her petition to make it so. But it took 31 years for Martin Luther King Jr. day to be a nationally recognized holiday across all US states (first celebrated in 1986), so there might be a long road ahead.
In the meantime, whether or not you have been given the day off, Juneteenth needs to spur action to continue progress toward racial equality. Juneteenth is a time of celebration, but also a reminder that there is still more work to be done to achieve true freedom and equality for Black Americans.
So this Juneteenth make a donation to an organization that helps the Black community, support Black owned businesses, make a plan for being a true ally to your Black colleagues and friends, and educate yourself on ways you can use your own influence to fight for racial equity and inclusion.