Honoring Juneteenth Within Your OrganizationBy Fred Falker, President, Falker Consulting Group, Inc., Facilitator
For over 150 years, many Black communities across the country have celebrated Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the freedom of enslaved people in America at the end of the Civil War. Recently signed into law as the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, Juneteenth, or Juneteenth National Independence Day, its official name, has been known to some as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Black Independence Day, and now the United States, “second Independence Day.” To me, Juneteenth represents our nation striving to live more fully into the ideals set in motion on the Fourth of July 1776. Juneteenth is a marker in time that I believe can and should inspire more connections in our workplaces, communities, and beyond. Here is some background on Juneteenth and ways to bring its significance into your organization.
The History of Juneteenth
Juneteenth celebrates June 19th, 1865, the date when the Union’s Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read President Lincoln’s General Order #3, “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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” While this was two full years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it represents the announcement of the end of the Civil War to some 250,000 slaves living in Texas, one of the last strongholds of the South. Freed Texans began moving to neighboring states and Juneteenth celebrations spread with them. These early Juneteenth celebrations included social events, church services, and even public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Although the day is celebrated as the end of slavery, due to racism and Jim Crow laws, many Juneteenth celebrations took place outside of town. While the Bill of Rights protected Whites to assemble freely, Juneteenth groups sometimes purchased plots of land in the city to safely celebrate Juneteenth. These parks were called Emancipation Parks, and one of the most famous still exists today in the Third Ward area of Houston, TX (Emancipation Park).
Juneteenth is more than Black History, it is American History, just as Mandela Day is South African History. Juneteenth is both human and American History. In the words of the great Human Rights Activist and Theologian, Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We in the United States share a single History: American History.
As you contemplate recognizing the significance of American History within your organization, let’s first understand the role that holidays play in cultures.
The Role of Holidays
Holidays give people in a community a sense of belonging by connecting them to their history and past generations. They give people the chance to express what is important to them. They represent an opportunity to reflect and move forward with renewed intention. Holidays serve as an artifact to inform and educate others. And in communication, we find ways to connect. Recognizing a holiday is more than just a notion of respect, it’s a way you can foster increased inclusivity within your organization. Employees feel included when they are proud of their organization, feel safe to share their viewpoints, and can be their authentic selves. Some of this authenticity can come from celebrating specific holidays. For some, it might be a religious holiday, or it might be a day of remembrance for those who have served in the armed forces. For others, it can be a significant day in their culture’s historical journey – a day important to their culture. Federal holidays are those we mark as important to our country’s history, and Juneteenth is now one of those days.
Importantly, recognizing one holiday does not take power or importance from another. As a Black American, I recognize and celebrate the Fourth of July and Juneteenth, holding both vital to me as an American citizen, father, son, and husband. My reverence for one holiday does not diminish the importance of the other. In fact, in this case, both are threads within a common tapestry of freedom.
We recognize that providing a day off for every federal holiday may be financially and operationally challenging. However, there’s more you can do besides giving a day off. Let’s look at some options you can take to celebrate Juneteenth.
Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth Within Your Organization
An organization can choose to provide messaging of support for the day. This can be an internal message to employees about the importance of the day and some education around its history. This communication can easily be moved to an external audience by sharing on social media. This message can come with a donation to a charity that directly supports the Black community.
Another option is to set aside time within the day to educate, reflect, and connect about Juneteenth. This can be a specific time set aside from normal operations, or it could be repurposing an existing meeting to discuss this holiday and what it means to team members. And yes, this can be powerful even if you don’t have Black employees on your team.
3. Increased Commitment
Juneteenth can be a partial or full day of team building through serving your organization’s local communities. From serving schools to building homes, challenge your team to find opportunities to serve and give back to your community.
4. Paid Time Off
Of course, you can also provide Juneteenth as a day off. As a new holiday and facing the pressures of recognizing other holidays important to your increasingly global workforce, you can also choose to offer a “floating holiday.” A day that your employees choose to use on a day of significance to them. If you select this option, I recommend the organization still communicates the day’s significance to the remainder of the organization. These recognitions can become part of your marketing plan, attracting a more diverse demographic.
Regardless of the direction you choose, it’s important to not lose sight of the importance of America’s newest holiday, a long time in the making.
In 1943, in his work, The Black Man Speaks, Langston Hughes said, “There is no color line in death. I swear to the lord I still can’t see why Democracy means Everybody but me.” Juneteenth is a day to pause and reflect and learn about our past, so we can do better in the future. My most fervent wish for your Juneteenth is for your people to connect and learn about one another. That you all find new ways of being human together. In so doing, we will be writing the next, and more inclusive, chapter of our shared history.
Read our recent article, Honoring LGBTQ+ Pride Month Within Your Organization, and learn more ways you can continue creating an inclusive organization and recognize holidays that are important to your team members.
About the author:
Fred Falker (Falker Consulting) has lived and worked in Saint Louis for most of his adult life. He writes, teaches, and consults on issues concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion.