Americans love freedom. It’s part of the USAmerican psyche. So a holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the US should be a day for all to rejoice. And it is moving in that direction. Black Lives Matter protests brought a renewed focus over the past 12 months to inequities experienced by Black Americans in the US. Along with that came a push to recognize Juneteenth.
While it is not yet a federal holiday, a bill declaring it as such has been introduced in both the House and Senate. Plus 49 states and the District of Columbia already recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday.
In 2020 many corporations, such as Twitter, the NFL and Nike, also designated the day as a paid work holiday as part of their overall commitment to addressing social justice and the push for racial equity. Here’s how things are looking for 2021, along with ideas on how you can commemorate this important day in US history.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, a contraction of “June” and “Nineteenth,” celebrates the day that all slaves were released from slavery. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in all confederate states on January 1, 1863. The US Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in all states on January 31, 1865 (it was ratified on December 6). However, the news that slaves were officially freed did not reach the last confederate holdouts until June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, reached Galveston Texas and the last 250,000 slaves still in captivity were told they were free.
The first celebration of Juneteenth occurred one year later, on June 19, 1866. In 1872, four Black ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land for $800 and created Emancipation Park for the annual Juneteenth gathering. Celebrations grew and then slowly faded under Jim Crow and during the Great Depression. Following a revival of Juneteenth during the civil rights movement, in 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday, starting in 1980. Today, South Dakota stands alone as the only state that does not recognize Juneteenth.
What about the 4th of July?
Freedom Day and Jubilee Day are other names for Juneteenth, which has also been called Independence Day. That last designation resonates more with June 19 than July 4 for Rhianna Mulford, a marketing professional in New York City. “My ancestors were not included in the Declaration of Independence,” says Mulford. “July 4th celebrates freedom, but we were not free in 1776,” says Mulford, who identifies as African American. “When the constitution was written, it wasn’t written with me in mind,” she adds.
The first organized celebration of Independence Day occurred on July 4, 1777. The U.S. Congress made July 4th a federal holiday in 1870. In 1941, the provision was expanded to grant a paid holiday to all federal employees. “The day is irrelevant for me,” however, says Mulford. “It’s the day white people got free.”
That gave her colleague, Steve Schertzen, who identifies as White, pause. “I had never stopped to question it,” said Schertzen. “The good news is that once you see something, you can’t unsee it,” he adds, with gratitude to his co-worker for sharing her lived experience. Now he is planning to do more research to learn and explore how to honor both holidays this year.
How is Juneteenth Celebrated?
This year cities from LA to New York City are hosting official celebrations, both in-person and virtual. (See a list of destination celebrations from Expedia, here.) Ways to honor Juneteenth include studying and learning, prayer, community service, barbecues…and eating food that is red. “For African Americans especially, Juneteenth is a day of education, reflection, cultural appreciation and hope for true liberation,” says St. Louis-based culinary researcher Robin Caldwell. “Juneteenth is typically celebrated with meals of red food and drink, such as hibiscus tea, watermelon, strawberry shortcake, red beans and rice, red velvet cake and strawberry soda, to symbolize strength and courage.” (Abari, June 4, 2021)
According to Nicole Taylor, who's been covering Juneteenth for The New York Times for years, “red also symbolizes generations of suffering and perseverance, and…it's a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage." (Gervasi, June 15, 2021) The red also hints of traditional, red-tinged special-occasion ingredients from West Africa, such as hibiscus and kola nuts.
“Given the widespread protests and far-reaching changes that have happened in the past year, Juneteenth celebrations are sure to resonate in new ways in 2021. Celebration is not without understanding how we got here.” says Caldwell.
What does this mean for you and your company?
“I’ve seen a surge in requests for businesses wanting DEI training since last summer,” says Elmer Dixon, President of Executive Diversity Services. “Now that it’s a year later, we can see which companies are doing serious work.” All of EDS trainings are tied to a business case and overall strategy tailored to that company.
Make your connection to Juneteenth meaningful. Give employees the option to take the day-off. Offer a paid day off for all if you are able. Provide educational opportunities and engage your Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s) for ideas. Share lists of local or virtual commemoration events, suggests Dixon.
“In 2021 consumers are looking for authenticity when they make choices about where to buy, evaluating which companies are giving lip service and which are serious about having Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as part of their core values,” says Dixon.
“Companies that create an environment that is inclusive and build opportunities for advancement and success for all of their workforce will remain competitive long into the future,” says Dixon. And that means valuing the things that your employees value. Like Juneteenth.
- Abari, Tonya, “Everything You Need to Know About Juneteenth and the Holiday's History in America.” Yahoo!life, June 4, 2021 https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/everything-know-juneteenth-holidays-history-184400513.html
- City of Boston, “Why Celebrate Juneteenth? June 18, 2020 https://www.boston.gov/news/why-celebrate-juneteenth
- Expedia, “9 Destinations Celebrating Juneteenth In-Person and Virtually This Year.” May 28, 2021 https://viewfinder.expedia.com/juneteenth-events-2021/
- Fonrouge, Gabrielle, “What is Juneteenth?” NYPost. June 19, 2020 https://nypost.com/article/what-is-juneteenth/
- Gervasi, Angela, “Why Red Foods Became A Juneteenth Tradition.” Mashed, June 15, 2020 https://www.mashed.com/217924/why-red-foods-became-a-juneteenth-tradition/
- “H.R. 7232 — 116th Congress: Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.” www.GovTrack.us. 2020. June 7, 2021 https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/116/hr7232
This article is provided for SIETAR USA as a courtesy of Elmer Dixon and Executive Diversity Services (EDS).