What is Juneteenth? The origin of the holiday and why so many companies are now recognizing it

By: - June 19, 2020 6:20 am

Cleo MeriAbut Jarvis, of Pike County, Pa., speaks during a Capitol news conference marking the enactment of a statewide Juneteenth holiday in Pennsylvania (Capital-Star photo).

By Samaria Bailey

PHILADELPHIA — A growing number of global corporations plan to honor Juneteenth as a formal company holiday.

Leaders of several companies — the NFL, Nike, Postmates, Square, Twitter, Square and Vox Media — announced their plans in the past week, in the midst of worldwide protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, police brutality across the U.S. and racial injustice around the world.

“Recognizing we are talking about this 155 years later, it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s a slow step,” said state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “All corporations should recognize that one day as a holiday, especially for the impact it has had, not just on Black and brown people but the country — the whole nation was built off the backs of Black and brown folks who were enslaved and I think it’s only befitting.”

Juneteenth celebrates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas — the last enslaved Black people in the U.S. — learned they were free. It was more than two months after the Civil War ended, and two years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Black people across the country have celebrated the anniversary for more than 140 years, making it the oldest African-American holiday observance in the U.S.

Pennsylvania and 46 other states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, but efforts to make it a national holiday have stalled in Congress.

A few days ago, the heads of large corporations began pledging that they would make Juneteenth a paid holiday, while others stated that they would observe it.

“Both Twitter and Square are making #Juneteenth (June 19th) a company holiday in the US, forevermore. A day for celebration, education, and connection,” Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted on Tuesday.

Vox Media, an online news organization, also announced on Twitter on Tuesday that it would recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday. As part of its announcement, the company pledged to create a professional development budget of $50,000 for Black employees, providing holistic health and wellness services for Black employees, create a mentorship program for underrepresented employees, and develop a deeper relationship with the National Association of Black Journalists.

‘Juneteenth is American history,’ supporters say at Capitol rally

Postmates founder and CEO Bastian Lehmann announced on Twitter on Wednesday that his company, too, would recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. He wrote, “Not just in response to the moment — but to allow all of us time to reflect on the Black American experience (from 1619 to today) & the actions required to move forward together.”

On Thursday afternoon, Nike executives reportedly sent out an internal memo stating that Juneteenth would be a paid company holiday, a move CEO Jack Donahoe said was important in acknowledging the idea that Black lives matter.

“For more than 40 years, our brand has celebrated incredible Black athletes and inspired millions of people all over the world by amplifying their excellence,” Donahoe said in an internal memo cited by Newsweek.

“When we say that Black Lives Matter, it applies to the world outside of Nike and, importantly, it applies to our Black teammates within Nike. Simply put, we need to hold ourselves to a high standard given the heritage of our company and our brand.”

And on Friday, the NFL announced that it would observe Juneteenth and close its league offices that day, according to a Tweet from ESPN reporter Adam Schefter.

Temple University professor Timothy Welbeck of the Department of Africology and African-American Studies said the efforts are positive, as long as they are sincere.

“If [corporations] are not committed to honoring Black life and giving opportunities to Black people and servicing Black people well, a statement on Juneteenth does feel like pandering. My initial feelings are so long as corporations are honoring the spirit of Juneteenth and not simply trying to profit off of the celebration, or because it’s politically expedient, I’m for them supporting and amplifying the celebrations that are put together by the people and our local governments,” he said.

“But my general sense is that the celebrations should be led by the people and not necessarily driven by corporations. Juneetenth celebrates the moments when the last of enslaved Africans learned that they were free. It was the cause of great jubilation to know this long sought after freedom had been obtained in a tangible way — organized celebrations grew from that. It should be continued to be celebrated in the spirit of how it originally began.”

Samaria Bailey is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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