Understanding and Honoring Juneteenth
While the first Juneteenth was celebrated more than a hundred years ago, most Americans were not familiar with the day until last year. A poll found that as recently as 2021, more than 60% of Americans didn’t know much about the only holiday that recognizes slavery in the United States. Awareness of Junetenth has been growing — in 2022, for the first time, the majority of Americans said they were familiar with the holiday — but many people are still learning about the history and nuances of the day.
What is Juneteenth
Juneteenth — also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, and Juneteenth Independence Day — honors the end of slavery in the U.S.* It’s a day to “celebrate human freedom, reflect on the grievous and ongoing legacy of slavery, and rededicate ourselves to rooting out the systemic racism that continues to plague our society.”
It commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were informed they were free. This was two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
*It’s important to note that slavery didn’t effectively end on June 19, 1865. It wasn’t until the ratification of the 13th amendment on December 6, 1865, that slavery was abolished in the U.S. — the end of 246 years of legal, institutionalized atrocities committed against Black people in the U.S. (and the beginning of new laws and practices, like Jim Crow and redlining, that perpetuated ongoing, systemic racism in America).
The History of Juneteenth
The first Juneteenth observances were held in 1866. At first, according to the Texas Historical Society, the day was used for rallies and to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights. That quickly expanded, with Juneteenth becoming a day for celebration, festivities, and joy for the African American community.
For years, the holiday was primarily celebrated within the Black community and in States like Texas. In 1980, the lone star State became the first to officially recognize Juneteenth, with other States following suit.
In 2020 — following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the subsequent uprising around racial injustice — awareness of Juneteenth became more widespread. In 2021, President Biden declared Juenteenth as a Federal Holiday and by 2022, 30% of private companies were recognizing the holiday.
How to Honor Juneteenth
The best way to commemorate Juneteenth depends on a person’s background.
For the Black community, Juneteenth is a day to celebrate of freedom and joy. It might take the form of parades and fireworks and cookouts, enjoying live music, personal introspection, or coming together for conversations.
For people who are not Black, it is important to treat Juneteenth as a “day on,” not a day off. It should be a day of active allyship — learning more about the history of racism in America, acknowledging the realities of racial injustice today, and reflecting on how to drive change for the better.
For organizations, Juneteenth should be a time to stand in solidarity with the Black community and foster inclusion for your Black employees. Communicate the importance of Juneteenth and share resources for education. Give employees tools for allyship. And, if it’s a company-wide holiday with time off, be thoughtful in your communications — importantly, don’t just tell employees to “enjoy their long weekend.” Instead, emphasize why the day is important, your organization’s commitment to supporting the Black community, and share resources for education and opportunities for non-Black team members to practice active allyship. To learn more, check out the Paradigm Reach resource: “How Companies and Individuals Can Use Juneteenth to Practice Active Allyship.”
May 31, 2023