It's time to celebrate the day enslaved African Americans learned that they gained independence and freedom in the United States. Keep scrolling to learn about the history of Juneteenth, find new ways to pay tribute to the African American community, and explore other celebratory activities to help expand on your own understanding of the event and its importance toward racial equity and social impact.
A Brief History Juneteenth
The first celebration of Juneteenth commenced on June 19, 1866, which is the first anniversary of the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 but the news of freedom did not reach Texas until the arrival of Union General Gordon Granger to Galveston nearly two-and-a-half years later on June 19, 1865. The news of the proclamation brought hope into the lives of 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. Even though freedom did not come instantaneously, many enslaved Africans Americans celebrated that newfound hope for freedom that day, and African Americans have continued to celebrate that proclamation of freedom every year on June 19 since then.
Freedom did not come readily at that time for any enslaved people in America, especially those outside of the Confederacy. According to History.com the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the 11 states under Confederate control and not to any other slave-holding states or rebel areas under Union control so many other enslaved people across the country were excluded from its language. However, the arrival of Northern troops into the Confederate South presented many people with an opportunity to flee and seek refuge behind Union lines. Slavery in America would not be formally abolished on a national level until the adoption of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, when the House of Representatives passed the amendment with a vote of 119-56. The 13th Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Within a few years, African Americans were celebrating Juneteenth in other states as well, making it an annual tradition. History.com also tells us that the holiday’s celebrations originally included prayer meetings, singing spirituals, and wearing new clothes to represent newfound freedom.
Juneteenth is Officially A Federal Holiday
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day, has been celebrated by African-Americans for the past 155 years to recognize the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. However, the commemoration only became an official federal holiday on Thursday, June 17, 2021 when President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the nation's first African American, female Vice President, signed legislation to officially designate it a federal holiday. The historic signing drew attention from activists nation-wide.
One activist in attendance at the signing event was Ms. Opal Lee, of Texas. The NY Times reports that Ms. Lee, has suffered firsthand, violent, racial injustice including an incident on June 19, 1939 when hundreds of rioters set fire to her family home. Some speculate that incidents like that could have been a catalyst to her activism. In 2016 Ms. Lee, then age 89, decided to walk from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., in an effort to get Juneteenth named as a national holiday. She continues to walk two-and-a-half miles on June 19 every year, with that specific mileage symbolic of the time it took between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the arrival of Union General Granger who brought the news of freedom to Galveston. After four years, now and at the age of 93, President Biden drew attention to Ms. Lee at the Juneteenth federal holiday signing, calling her out by name to recognize and honor her persistent activism. He deemed her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.” President Biden also got down on one knee to greet her and spoke with her personally according to the NY Times. ABC News states that Ms. Lee’s activism “helped push Congress to establish a new national holiday for the first time in nearly 40 years.”
Although the signing of Juneteenth into federal holiday is a small step forward, some see the action as merely a "symbolic gesture." Some of the initial goals of Black Lives Matter, including police reform, the introduction of anti-lynching laws, and the distribution of reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, have yet to be addressed. Substantive action is still required by federal lawmakers and by every community member to work toward achieving racial equity, and progress in economic and structural change.
Vice President Kamala Harris touched on the importance of taking action and the continuing efforts toward racial equity at the signing, “Let me end by saying this, we are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride. It is also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”
10 Ways to Celebrate JUneteenth
There are many ways you and your organization can honor this important day in history, celebrated on June 19, as well as celebrate Black history and heritage.
Source: Diversity Best Practices
Make it part of your company’s holiday schedule or offer the opportunity for employees to use Juneteenth as a personal day or floating holiday.
Use the day as an opportunity to hold listening and essential conversations about race.
Make it an annual day of reflection or conversation that celebrates emancipation but also to highlight progress at your organization.
Celebrate and recognize the contributions of your Black employees, leaders, and stakeholders.
Assess your talent processes and systems to eliminate bias and ensure equitable promotion and advancement opportunities.
Use it as a day of service.
Recommend, buy, or donate children’s books on Juneteenth or Black history and share them with local school districts
Create a hashtag campaign commemorating the day.
Lobby for changes and reform in inequitable policies, laws, and programs.
Use the company’s social media platforms to promote Juneteenth and to celebrate Black culture and Black history throughout the day, and all year.