Juneteenth is Time to Reflect on Progress Made and Progress Needed

JuneteenthThe oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth, or African American Emancipation Day, marks the freeing of the last enslaved people more than two years after the end of the Civil War and adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The result of what’s referred to as General Order Number 3, June 19, 1865 marks the day that Union troops marched into Galveston, Texas under the command of General Gordon Granger to free the last enslaved people in the nation. Juneteenth has been celebrated for more than 150 years, quietly in prayer and privately in backyard family gatherings, and publicly with parades and festivals.

Recognition of and enthusiasm for the celebration has grown more fervent and widespread for many in recent years. The murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis Police Officer in May of 2020, in addition to the high-profile killings of other Black Americans at the hands of police, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner and many others, has increased visibility around the holiday.

June 19 was established as a federal holiday in 2021 when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. With the date falling on Sunday this year, it will be recognized by the federal government on Monday, June 20.

One step on a longer journey

Like many dates that commemorate key events in our nation’s history, Juneteenth reflects both celebration and somber reflection. It is a date on which we might rejoice in the ideas of freedom and equality, yet take solemn stock of persistent, and ofttimes growing, inequality between white and Black Americans. It reminds us of progress made, and the long road ahead.

That road includes persistent inequality around housing, health outcomes, safety, wealth and professional opportunities. The median Black family today owns just a little over 2% of the wealth owned by the median white family, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. While one out of five C-Suite leaders today is a woman, only one in 25 is a woman of color, according to McKinsey & Company. Black women earn just 64 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men compared to 83 cents for the average for all women. Latinas earn even less.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also widened the gap between white and Black earners. In a period where 41% of small businesses owned by Black people closed due to the pandemic, only 17% of those owned by white people closed, according to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Celebrate, reflect, reconsider

Those sobering statistics point to why recognizing Juneteenth should be important to all Americans. It can help us better understand our history, and urge us to take the steps needed to create a more equitable and fair future for everyone.

“Juneteenth is important, because it reminds us of what we came through and what we can achieve,” explains Mary Elliott, Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “It allows each generation to reflect what more there is to do. Juneteenth places Black people at the center of the conversation about freedom, its meaning and manifestation in this nation.”

Curator of African American Women’s History at the museum, Angela Tate, sees Juneteenth as something that speaks to the future. “Juneteenth doesn’t feel fixed like July 4th,” she explains. “July 4th feels fixed in 1776, whereas Juneteenth always feels fluid and always willing to be adaptable to the incoming and upcoming generations. It always feels relevant to this continuous quest and fight for freedom and equality.”

One gauge of that fluidity is the growing number of companies that now provide the day off for employees, including Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Target, Twitter, Zillow and many others. In 2021, the Monica Motivates organization was also inspired to recognize Juneteenth with our inaugural closing of the company on that date last year, and into the future.

In addition to providing a day for employees to celebrate or reflect, many organizations also tie events to the date, and throughout the month. Those events can prompt important conversations, enhance understanding and drive change. That might include hosting guest speakers, engaging team members in reading and discussing a shared book, participating in local activities and inviting Black team members to share their personal thoughts in company publications.

Holidays alone do not drive change, but they can serve as important reminders of where, how and what change is needed. They pull our attention away from everyday concerns even if just for a minute, hint at something larger than ourselves and can symbolize our desire to work together to create a more just and equitable society.

Juneteenth is both a symbol of progress, and of the need for the nation, organizations and individuals to keep building a more perfect union.