What is Juneteenth?

Yesterday, my son and his friends were talking through a song they were recording, as I heard him say, “today is Juneteenth, we should put a line in our song about it.” I thought, wow…that’s really awesome. However, another friend responded, “wait, I know we have today off, but what really is Juneteenth anyway?” Of course, that was my cue to chime in with a short history lesson.

For many, Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Like my son’s friend, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans. So, at the encouragement of my son and his friends, here’s just a brief history of why all Americans should acknowledge and celebrate this historical day.

We all know the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War. While its intentions were good, it did not accomplish instantly freeing the majority of slaves held in the confederate states. It was only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation become codified into national policy (December 1865). But right before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, something special happened in Texas.

On June 19, 1865, Union Army Soldiers marched into Galveston, Texas, assuming control of the state and guaranteeing the freedom of the last enslaved Americans – more than two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as "Juneteenth," by the newly freed people in Texas. Each subsequent year in Texas, Juneteenth became a symbol of freedom and celebration. In fact, in 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteeth an official state holiday.

However, many of us in other parts of the country did not truly understand the significance and meaning of Juneteenth, and it certainly was not a state holiday. Until 2016, an 89-year-old educator and author, Opal Lee, decided to change that. She set on a 1,400-mile march to raise awareness about Juneteenth. And, she succeeded. In January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that officially recognizes Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday.

Juneteenth is not only a celebration of freedom but also a symbol of freedom. It is a reminder of what Americans can do when we unite to fight for justice, equality and other fundamental human rights. Its historical legacy shows the value of never giving up hope even in uncertain times. For me, it is a reminder that while progress has been made with respect to diversity and equity, we still have work to do.

Many employers recognize Juneteenth as a mandatory or optional holiday. Juneteenth is a great time to take a moment to see how we can advance diversity, equity and inclusion principles into our workplaces and communities. If you are looking for ideas, here are some things employers may consider:

  • Provide a message from senior management reiterating your commitment to diversity and inclusion and sharing information goals, benchmarks and actions your organization is taking.
  • Bring in guest speakers who can talk about DEI topics and encourage employees to participate in open discussion and sharing ideas.
  • Donate to an organization in your community working to promote diversity and inclusion and address the consequences of historic inequality.
  • Find and participate in local Juneteenth events.

Check out www.juneteenth.com/how-to-celebrate for more ideas. In addition, here is a great reading list of books about Juneteenth.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been the bedrock of our firm since we opened over 75 years ago. As we like to say, it is in our DNA. We believe that to foster diverse leadership and urge diversity of thought, we must do what we can to advance the conversation about diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging in the workplace and the communities in which our workplaces thrive. Through our blog, we share our insights from the perspective of both an employer and employee, regarding emerging issues that affect diverse leaders and workforces. We hope you enjoy our tidbits of legal and practical information, wisdom, and humor. Thanks for joining the conversation!


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