Juneteenth is an annual U.S. federal holiday that falls on June 19. This holiday commemorates this very day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed of the end of the institution of slavery — a full two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Which means that despite there being an officially signed declaration, freedom had not yet reached everyone.
This is why it’s important that organizations approach Juneteenth with a spirit of commemoration, not just celebration. “In a way this holiday celebrates knowledge, because if you don’t know you have rights, then you essentially don’t have any,” says Dr. Raymond Christian, a writer, storyteller, and professor of Black culture and history.
Both companies and employees can use this knowledge to help them recognize Juneteenth in a way that’s respectful of its history and what it symbolizes for Black Americans and our society today.
Commemoration, celebration, and education
According to Dr. Raymond, Black people celebrate Juneteenth because it reminds them of their continued fight for freedom and liberation. For everyone else, Juneteenth should serve as a day of commemoration, reflection and, perhaps most importantly, education.
“For a long time, this was a celebration that we couldn’t acknowledge in public, because there were still consequences to being Black,” says Raymond. “Now we’re celebrating knowledge that hasn’t been out there and the consequences of slavery that aren’t often talked about.”
Raymond highlights that, post-emancipation, Black people struggled to create community and identity in the wake of their collective, extended period of trauma. “Consider what the end of slavery meant for people,” he says. “How do people actually emancipate themselves? How do they find their family? How do they find and restore their faith? Juneteenth is the beginning of a great quest for knowledge.”
Whether you are an employee wanting to advocate for recognizing Juneteenth or an employer wanting to lead the way, keeping the gravity and depth of this history in mind will help you honor it in a way that could build community and understanding through learning about the experiences of fellow employees.
Recognizing Juneteenth in the workplace
It might be tempting to start making plans, but before you do, make sure to consult and plan with employee resource groups (ERGs) of Black employees at your workplace about how they’d want to see this holiday represented by the company and how they’d like to be involved in planning.
Here are a few ideas for honoring Juneteenth in the workplace while anchoring on education:
- Bring in a speaker to talk to employees about the history of the holiday and its impact today
- Dedicate a space (like a Slack channel) where Black employees can share stories and photos about what Juneteenth means to them and their families
- Put together and share a resource list of locally owned and run Black businesses and organizations people can support or donate to
If you’re a manager, and employees are the ones to lead the Juneteenth efforts, don’t shut them down. Do your part to learn more about the history of the holiday and what it means to them.