On June 15th 2021, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, to make June 19th, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday – it subsequently passed through the House of Representatives by a 415-14 vote the following day, and was signed into law yesterday by President Biden. Although almost all states already recognized Juneteenth as a holiday, recognition at the federal level creates an additional opportunity for companies to evaluate their overall DEI progress and enhance employees’ understanding of the experiences of their Black colleagues, in particular. For those not already familiar, here’s some background on Juneteenth National Independence Day:
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day or Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, the day the news of freedom reached enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas. This occurred two months after the Confederacy had surrendered and over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states. Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective January 1, 1863, some holders of enslaved people refused to tell them that they were free. On June 19, 1865, union troops brought the news to the reluctant Galveston community, and required the locals to comply. While Juneteenth celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in the South, the 13th Amendment is what officially ended slavery in the U.S.
Recognition of Juneteenth (a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”) has grown in recent years – as has the push to designate Juneteenth as a national holiday. Last summer’s racial unrest was a tipping point, as protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans sparked ongoing dialogue around systemic racism and fostered an appetite for change. As the American public continues to grapple with how to talk about slavery and its enduring consequences, the national recognition of Juneteenth is at least a start to acknowledging the harmful way America was built and the foundational contributions of Black people.
With Juneteenth coming up this Saturday, it is too soon for many organizations to react to the bill, although the Office of Personnel Management tweeted that most federal employees will have today off – and this database shows that a growing number of private sector employers are also already observing today as a paid holiday.
In the next few months, and certainly by June 19, 2022, companies will need to revisit holiday policies to consider this newly added holiday – and other ways to mark the occasion, such as by sharing resources with employees that elaborate on why it marks a pivotal date in US history, what it means to your leaders and employees, and what your company is doing to accomplish DEI goals. This excellent HBR article suggests that you may also want to encourage a day of service or support of local Black-owned businesses. While Juneteenth National Independence Day will grant federal employees a day off to commemorate June 19, 1865, all employees will be paying attention to how their company reacts to the holiday.