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Why Juneteenth is Important

Although Juneteenth has been observed and celebrated for over 150 years, the holiday was recently designated an official federal holiday on June 17, 2021, following the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas in mid-June 1865, following a declaration from Union General Gordon Granger informing enslaved African-Americans in the city of their freedom and “absolute equality of rights” well over two years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Whether observed as Juneteenth, Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, or Black Independence Day, what’s clear is that, prior to its establishment as an official federal holiday, Juneteenth thrived and multiplied as a self-sustaining tradition in African-American communities: advanced as a celebration of life, liberty, and freedom – and a reflective recognition of what has been lost, endured, created, and what can still be achieved.

As Angela Tate, Curator of African American Women’s History at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, explains, “This is not just a holiday that is fixed and has one meaning. It has a multiplicity of meanings to people of African descent in the United States.” Similarly, to Mary Elliot, Curator of American slavery, and emancipation, “Juneteenth should really be a rallying call for all of us to think about the meaning of freedom, particularly regarding African Americans, as well as to the nation and the rest of the world.” 

Accordingly, Juneteenth does not offer or require one monolithic approach to observance that defines or codifies the holiday; in some ways, this is regarded as one of its strengths, particularly given the local and regional customs and history that sometimes inform or accompany celebrations. As Gina Cherelus describes in her extensive survey of Juneteenth traditions:

“For some, it’s eating barbecue, shooting fireworks, gathering at a cookout and sipping on red drinks, a tradition that symbolizes perseverance and honors the blood that was shed of African-Americans. For others, it’s shopping only at black-owned businesses, sharing history or resting at home.” In other communities and settings, Juneteenth involves clear educational components like “Juneteenth trivia games” related to African-American history and culture, poetry recitations of works from the Harlem Renaissance, readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the singing of traditional songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

It's important to note that Juneteenth celebrations – often centered around small, intimate, in-person gatherings among family and friends (barbeques, park parties, etc.) – were mostly disrupted during the height of the pandemic, forcing what is typically a close-quarters communal celebration to relocate to the remote/virtual realm. Fortunately, in 2022 and beyond, celebrations are expected to return to a more “traditional” in-person format, a matter of particular significance given the isolation felt across the peak pandemic years.

This year, Juneteenth as an official holiday will fall on Sunday, June 19th. However, recognition of the holiday will span from June 17th-June 20th depending on the state. In preparing for the holiday, employers should consider formulating ways to commemorate Juneteenth in the workplace. Depending on how your organization would like to observe the holiday, actions as simple as inviting a guest speaker or guest speakers; sponsoring workplace activities (on- or off-duty); or hosting a company-sponsored booth or contest at local community Juneteenth events, demonstrates your belief that the history of all your employees matters. Importantly, employers should consider inviting open, transparent dialogue about the holiday to encourage awareness, understanding, and participation.

As Angela Tate emphasizes, Juneteenth is not simply a time to be passively “present”: “Juneteenth is a time to reflect. What does it mean to really celebrate our freedom? What does it mean to be free in moments where freedom is conditional, and freedom is always a challenge? Juneteenth is a moment to think about freedom being conditional freedom and it is something that we must continuously strive and fight for.” 

To learn more about Juneteenth, visit the Official Juneteenth World Wide Celebration website or speak with local event organizers in your community to see how you can participate.

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