Why the History of Juneteenth Is More Relevant Than Ever

June 19, 2020

America’s Celebration of Emancipation Also Serves as a Reminder of the Work That Remains

This article by Dr. Tiffany Jana, founder and CEO of Certified B Corporation TMI Consulting, is the first in a series from members of the B Corp community about how businesses and individuals can advocate for change. 

Dr. Tiffany Jana of TMI Consulting, a Certified B Corporation.
Dr. Tiffany Jana of TMI Consulting, a Certified B Corporation.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This document “freed” the enslaved of their owners and abolished slavery. While this was a necessary and historical step toward equality, hundreds of thousands of Black people did not reap the benefits of the Proclamation until years later.

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery,” Lincoln wrote. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”

The Proclamation was contingent upon the Union winning the Civil War, which didn’t happen until April of 1865, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The extreme opposition to the Proclamation invigorated the South, leading to battles that left unmatched civilian and soldier death tolls.

Our very creation as a country was rooted in the exploitation of other human beings. Slavery created an institution of hierarchy that is still being enforced today. Racial inequality, the idea that certain human beings are “less than,” and other such oppressions were the ideals of colonizers who founded our “great” nation. The efforts of Abraham Lincoln should not go unnoticed. But it should be made very clear that the only reason such an act was allowed to be instituted was because it came from a white man, and was enforced by other white men. Black people had no autonomy over their own bodies, and no rights or votes to advocate for themselves. They were considered objects, things to be sold and used until they were no longer useful.

This very racial hierarchy meant that half the nation felt it was their right to own Black bodies, and with this belief they fought for four years against the Union. Texas was the last one standing, and with 250,000 enslaved registered in the state, it was arguably the most important state to fall.

On June 19, 1865, two months after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Union General Gordon Granger and approximately 1,800 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Granger read General Order No. 3, which declared in part: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Juneteenth (short for “June nineteenth”) is a holiday commemorating this day, which marked the effective end of slavery in the United States.

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated all over the United States. In the past few years it has gained traction as racial and civil rights activists have brought it to the forefront of cultural celebrations. However, it’s not a federal holiday, and only 45 states and Washington, D.C., recognize the day as a state holiday. Juneteenth lives on through celebrations in the form of festivals and parades with local bands, storytellingpicnics, and a Juneteenth staple: barbecues. Traditionally, red drinks and red foods are a must at these barbecues, with red symbolizing resilience.

It is immensely important for Americans to recognize Juneteenth. As NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in an interview with Teen Vogue, “Today’s political climate is the result of a concerted effort over many years to teach individuals a revised history: that the system of slavery was related to state’s rights, when in fact it was a treasonous act that this nation must not revisit. One of the ways we can prevent another uprising of a treasonous act [like slavery] is to recognize milestones like Juneteenth. I think the significance and purpose of recognizing Juneteenth is something that all citizens should acknowledge because, if there is not a retelling or remembrance of the true history in this nation, we’re doomed to repeat it.”

Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the mandated freedom of all Americans. But it is also a time to reflect on the inequalities still sweeping our nation and the disgusting effects it has had for entire populations. As people and businesses search for ways to deepen their understanding of the history of racism against Black people in America, this is a great moment to reflect and consider this vital date in U.S. history. Social justice-minded organizations and movements, like the Certified B Corporation movement, should be particularly keen on adding Juneteenth to the list of worthwhile celebrations and acknowledgements of the importance of Black people in our nation and our workforce.

The same attitude we have about July 4th must be embraced for Juneteenth. Frederick Douglass said, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”

As we commemorate June 19, 2020, I urge you to reflect on your own understanding of history and the reality of our world. Open your mind to the notion that history was written for, and by, white people. The truth we were taught was filled with omission and one-sided testimonies. Educate yourself on what this nation was actually founded upon. Learn about the lived experiences of Black people, LGBTQ people, women, and many other marginalized groups; it may not be a pleasant realization, but it is necessary. Arming ourselves with information is the best way to win the fight for equality.

Read more about Juneteenth and the continuing legacy of slavery:

Find anti-racism resources for you and your business.

Compiled by the Team at B Lab U.S. & Canada.

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