Juneteenth 2021: A Brief History & Reflection for Organizational Leaders

The following reflection was written by #TeamTangible’s Inclusion Strategist, Charles Kellom. Follow Charles on LinkedIn (click here).

Though only recently being federally recognized, the celebration of Juneteenth has been an American tradition for over 150 years that marks the end of slavery in the United States. Its celebration has a lot to teach us about perseverance, liberation, and what it means to witness the impossible become attainable.

History of Juneteenth

Juneteenth began toward the end of the Civil War in 1865. More than two years earlier, in September 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved persons in Confederate territories. Texas was the western-most state at the time, and thus the hardest for Union troops to reach. Knowing they were beyond the reach of the army, slavers continued their cruel business until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay. Celebrations of the date began the very next year, originally being called “Jubilee Day.” Eventually, the portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” took hold, and the celebration has been known as Juneteenth ever since.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be an enslaved Black person on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas? To find out that two years earlier, the President of the United States had declared your people free via the Emancipation Proclamation, but that this fact was hidden from you until Union soldiers could arrive to enforce it? Would you have felt jubilant? Could you even have believed it to be true? It’s hard to imagine. The idea of freedom from slavery must have seemed far out of reach. Similarly, the progress Black Americans have made in the years since must have seemed impossible to slaveholders.

Juneteenth Today

When we look at the state of diversity and social justice in America today, there are many issues that seem as if they are beyond our reach. The celebration of Juneteenth is a time to remember that a better world is possible if enough of us can commit to working together towards change.

While Black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth consistently for over 150 years, it’s only been recently that businesses have begun to recognize the holiday in serious ways. The fact that it has been overlooked for so long speaks to the ways in which Black history has often been marginalized from the broader idea of American history.

What Your Organization Can Do

As of June 15, 2021, Congress passed a bill that will make Juneteenth a US federal holiday, the first new federal holiday in decades. As your business or organization considers how it can become more equitable and inclusive, consider ensuring that Juneteenth is given the recognition it deserves. Outside of a paid day off, you can:

  • Educate the members of your community about this important history.
  • Challenge yourself and your stakeholders to explore other histories and cultures that may have been marginalized in the past.
  • Financially support existing celebrations produced by the Black community.

Finally, ask yourself: how can we commit to continue making positive change for the future?