The holiday is both a celebration of Black culture and an opportunity to take specific actions to advance equity.
Juneteenth (sometimes known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day) is a celebration of Black culture and freedom that has carried great significance since it was first proclaimed a holiday in 1865. The June 19 date commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.
As our country wrestles with its deep history of racism, the holiday is gaining more traction and meaning. In the wake of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder and other police-involved killings of Black people, our country is reckoning with systemic and institutional racism and the lasting effects of white supremacy.
“Systemic racism and implicit bias are infused across too many of our systems,” says Jody Levison-Johnson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities-Council on Accreditation (Alliance-COA). “While we recognize the work that has taken place thus far to increase equity and opportunity, we must continue to build on it, and acknowledge that the road ahead of us is long, and that we must work toward change at the individual, organizational, community, and system levels.”
Juneteenth provides the opportunity to reflect and engage in several ways:
- Celebrate the many achievements of African Americans and their contributions toward the building of our nation
- Learn more about the history of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth and engage in dialogues with employees and community members
- Support Black-owned businesses and establishments for the long-term through the development of a supplier diversity program plan
- Assess where you, your organization, and the systems you work within are on their equity journeys
“There is much work to be done, but community-based organizations, because of their deep legacies and connectedness with their neighbors have a great opportunity to amplify the observance and recognition of Black culture and its contribution to the building of America,” says Undraye Howard, senior director of equity, diversity, and inclusion and engagement. “Nonprofits, public agencies, and businesses working to help all families thrive must look to move the needle on the adoption of equitable practices and policies on a systemic level.”
The History of Juneteenth
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Sept. 22, 1862, and it became official Jan. 1, 1863. However, it took two-and-a-half years for Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, to arrive in Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people had been freed. Historians are still examining that period in history and have identified a few possible reasons, all grounded in racism, that allowed slavery to continue past its official end.
Gen. Granger read the following proclamation, General Order Number 3, to the people in Texas:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
This declaration of freedom was significant, even if the realities for formerly enslaved people were still brutal and uncertain. A wave of migration began, to reunify families torn apart and to relocate to the industrialized North.
According to the National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters, Juneteenth first became a major celebration and gathering of families in Texas, with many formerly enslaved people journeying back to Galveston in the decades following the proclamation. The color red became associated with Juneteenth, to represent the resilience of formerly enslaved people. Juneteenth celebrations were often held on church property; they were often banned from taking place in public areas controlled by white people.
Today, Juneteenth is recognized and commemorated in communities across the country. It is an opportunity for organizations across the social sector to educate, advocate, and celebrate. Here are some ideas for marking Juneteenth at your organization, based on recommendations from the National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters:
- Gather employees together with refreshments to acknowledge the holiday and learn about Juneteenth. The celebration could include music, art, dance, or anything your team offers in the spirit of seriousness and celebration. For food, the regional style of barbecue, red soda, and red velvet cake are always mainstays.
- Invite a guest speaker to share thoughts and perspectives on the holiday and progress toward racial equity.
- Host a movie screening or share a watchlist. Suggestions, ranging genres, include Miss Juneteenth, If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma, and Just Mercy.
- Discuss your organization’s equity, diversity, and inclusion goals and what you are doing to ensure that race, gender, and ability are not barriers to progress.
- Support Black-owned businesses, whether it is catering your Juneteenth event, or ongoing contracts for services.
Examples from Organizations
- Alliance-COA will close its offices June 18 in recognition of the holiday and will hold a Brown Bag Lunch session June 17 to discuss Juneteenth, its history, and its significance.
- UCAN in Chicago:
“We are looking at the arts, education, and sports as a means of lifting up solidarity and freedom,” says Executive Vice President of External Affairs and Diversity Claude Robinson. The organization is hosting a community event that includes a three-point competition and performances by Muntu Dance Theatre: African Dance, Xochitl-Quetzal Aztec Dance, and Tsukasa Taiko Japanese Drumming. The event’s sponsors include BMO Harris Bank, Cook County Board Commissioner Dennis Deer, Illinois Rep. Lakesia Collins, and Alderman Michael Scott Jr.
- Family Service Society in Marion, Indiana:
“Our agency is hosting the Black History Club students from the high school to do an educational performance about Juneteenth and its significance,” says President and CEO Lisa Dominisse. “In addition, we are hiring a Black-owned caterer to provide a traditional meal for all employees. We rented out a facility that has a stage and adequate space for social distancing. We are doing this in a lunch-and-learn format to allow as many employees as possible to participate.”
- Children’s Home Society of Washington in Seattle:
“Our agency has a whole month of activity planned,” says COO Marlena Torres. “We are providing a special CEO message, translated into multiple languages at the beginning of June. We will follow up with education (reading recommendations, videos, etc.), reflections from staff members, and we will have three live sessions with an external speaker that will include, among other things, a writing circle exercise.”
- St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence, Rhode Island:
“We actually added Juneteenth Day to our agency holidays,” says Human Resources Manager Sharon Costello. “Staff will have Friday, June 18th off this year. We also changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People Day.”
What Happens Beyond Juneteenth?
The goal of Juneteenth is to commemorate the historical emancipation of enslaved people, but also to advance equity for Black Americans, who still do not experience true freedom as they encounter barriers to safety, health, and well-being. Opportunities abound for making equity a year-round commitment for your organization.
- Join the free barbershop webinars to chat with Black male executives about better supporting Black fathers and students in the classroom. Everyone is welcome!
- Register for the virtual workshop Advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for a More Perfect Union (with sessions in July and November) to advance your knowledge and start your equity action plan with the help of experienced facilitators.
- Start or accelerate your organization’s equity journey with customized support including consultation, staff training, and community workshops.
- Participate in the Alliance-COA SPARK 2021 virtual learning experience in September. Additional details will be available soon and registration will open this summer.
- Make the commitment to challenge yourself to become a more inclusive and equitable leader within your organization and community