What is Juneteenth and will Americans embrace it?

Is it enough to declare a holiday and move on?

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
Happy Juneteenth, Contexters! For those who don’t know, today is the annual observance of the sad fact that for many African Americans in one corner of the Deep South, news of the Emancipation Proclamation and even the Union victory in the Civil War came late. Juneteenth observances became more widespread during the civil rights era. But in the wake of the past weeks’ protests, more companies and institutions are formalizing today’s date. The Pennsylvania Capital-Star has a business culture take on that here. But is celebrating Juneteenth enough? What does that actually accomplish? We’re looking at that and more in today’s Context. —Joseph Darius Jaafari, Reporter
In this June 17, 2020, photo, a statue depicts a man holding the state law that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Galveston, Texas. The inscription on the statue reads "On June 19, 1865, at the close of the Civil War, U.S. Army General Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston stating that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was in effect. That event, later known as "Juneteenth," marked the end of slavery in Texas. Celebrated as a day of freedom since then, Juneteenth grew into an international commemoration and in 1979 became an official Texas holiday through the efforts of State Representative Albert (AL) Edwards of Houston."

David J. Phillip / AP Photo

In this June 17, 2020, photo, a statue depicts a man holding the state law that made Juneteenth a state holiday in Galveston, Texas. The inscription on the statue reads “On June 19, 1865, at the close of the Civil War, U.S. Army General Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston stating that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was in effect. That event, later known as “Juneteenth,” marked the end of slavery in Texas. Celebrated as a day of freedom since then, Juneteenth grew into an international commemoration and in 1979 became an official Texas holiday.

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation that established today, June 19, as Juneteenth National Freedom Day. When he signed the bill, which passed unanimously out of the legislature, Wolf said he hoped that Pennsylvanians would use the day to “reflect on the struggles and sacrifices our forefathers made to give us freedom.”

But establishing the Juneteenth observance was largely ceremonial, having little effect outside of recognition.

State lawmakers do this kind of holiday legislation quite often. In 2010, The Morning Call found that nearly 15% of legislation was devoted to creating new holidays and special observances.

Enter Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who announced earlier this week that the state’s largest city would officially recognize Juneteenth through an executive order, adding that he would work with the city council to make it an official annual city holiday going forward.

“Now more than ever, it’s critically important to acknowledge America’s original sin of slavery—something we as a nation have never atoned for,” he said. “The only way to dismantle the institutional racism and inequalities that continue to disenfranchise Black Philadelphians is to look critically at how we got here, and make much-needed changes to the governmental systems that allow inequality to persist.”

Kenney’s move is a big boost for Juneteenth, but for it to be broadly adopted as a holiday there needs to be more buy in from more governments and the private sector.

Getting that buy in might be difficult, as we saw with the creation of the January holiday honoring the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. — the first national holiday honoring African Americans’ struggle for equal rights. Supporters had to overcome opposition in Congress and the White House (President Reagan initially opposed it before reconsidering and signing the bill to make it a holiday).

The states weren’t big fans at first, either. In Arizona, for example, Gov. Evan Mecham said the state’s observance of the holiday was established illegally by his predecessor, and moved it to a Sunday to avoid a paid day off. It wasn’t until 1993 when the state came into the fold with the rest of the nation.

And even with every state now treating it as a holiday, (though, two states still lump together MLK Jr. day with a holiday to celebrate Confederate General Robert E. Lee) less than half of businesses in America give their employees the day off. In fact, even at WITF (PA Post’s parent organization), employees have to pick between taking MLK Day off or President’s Day in February.

Back to Juneteenth. What does an official holiday accomplish if states – en masse – don’t take it up? And how effective of a strategy is it that only some companies celebrate a holiday while others don’t?

For one, elevating Juneteenth acknowledges the long-ignored history of slavery in the United States. Sure, most Americans know there were once slaves and a war was fought to free them. But certain aspects of slavery – here’s a video on how the United Daughters of the Confederacy were able to tell a different story of slavery – along with the causes of the civil war – here’s a look at history books’ teaching on the civil war across the nation – have been whitewashed over the past century.

The movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is gaining steam, as evidenced by the fact that some of the nation’s largest banks – Comerica, J.P. Morgan Chase, Capital 1, PNC, Santander – are closing their doors today in observance.

But Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, says the holiday is unlikely to find mainstream appeal.

“If that [MLK Day] only has a 40% uptake, I can’t imagine this is going to be significantly larger going forward,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Are you getting a day off for Juneteenth? How are you celebrating? And if you’re not, do you feel that you should? Let us know in our Listening Post.  –Joseph Darius Jaafari

Juneteenth in Pennsylvania:

Related Reads: 

  • Still don’t know what Juneteenth is? Here’s a primer from The Guardian on what the holiday is, and why it’s important. In a nutshell: ”Combining the words ‘June’ and ‘19th,’ the holiday commemorates the anniversary of the day in 1865 when the Union army major general Gordon Granger read out Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to remaining enslaved African Americans on a plantation in Galveston, Texas.”

  • Toward Racial Justice: Last night, WITF convened a powerful virtual conversation about systemic racism. You can watch a replay of the event on YouTube.

  • Ice-cold take: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream – known for their willingness to go beyond just the typical corporate support statement– said that Juneteenth is America’s “true Independence Day, because if you really think about it, July 4, 1776, only represents the day that white male Americans became free.” Here is the link to their full statement.

  • “Very famous”: The Beatles’ album cover made Abbey Road famous. Now, Donald Trump says he’s made Juneteenth famous. Why? Because his rally – originally scheduled for this evening in Tulsa – caused an uproar. “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous.” He admittedly said he was unaware of the date’s significance until a Secret Service agent informed him. The rally is now scheduled for tomorrow.

  • Lancaster OnlineGeneral Sutter Inn in Lititz removes statue of John Sutter

  • Los Angeles TimesHow a Texan showed LA the way to celebrate Juneteenth

  • New York Times: What to eat during Juneteenth, and how the food got so red.

Best of the rest

A protester writes a message in chalk on the steps outside the Montgomery County Courthouse Monday, June 15, 2020, in Norristown, Penn., during a rally in response to controversial comments by Commissioner Joseph Gale about the Black Lives Matter movement. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • Two days of hearings: Wednesday and Thursday saw two full days of hearings in the Pa. Capitol regarding policing, the criminal justice system and race. Two state Senate committees — Judiciary, and Law & Justice committees — invited over two dozen panelists across various stakeholders (from prisoners’ rights leaders to police union officials) to address unfair policies and possible police reform. There were some tense moments, but one thing remained clear: The police officials who testified don’t think there’s much need for change. You can read my Twitter highlights here for Wednesday, and here for Thursday.

  • Not Latino enough: In case you missed it from yesterday, Anthony Orozco goes into what colorism is for people in the Latino community of Central Pa., and how they are dealing with it amidst the ongoing national conversation about race. For those who have never heard the term, “colorism” is bias within a specific ethnic or racial group, usually based on skin color or other ethnic or cultural differences. It’s a real thing, and a real bias that affects many Americans who walk a tightrope between “not being [insert race here] enough.” (Gen X editor’s note: Spike Lee made “colorism” a central theme of his 1988 film School Daze).

  • DACA Day: Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Trump administration’s move to end the special program for undocumented people who came to the United States as children was good news for many young Pennsylvanians. Anthony Orozco spoke with two of them for this story.

  • Where’s the action? The Supreme Court’s ruling on employment discrimination against LGBTQ Americans isn’t spurring the Pa. legislature to update state law, as Cynthia Fernandez reports for Spotlight PA.

  • Partisan cracks: Ed Mahon and Ben Pontz teamed up on this story about the small number of Democrats who joined Republicans last week to pass legislation to end gov. Wolf’s coronavirus emergency declaration. As one Democratic legislator said of Wolf: “He’s not listening to anybody else. That’s not what a good leader does.”


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