On June 19th, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger informed enslaved African Americans in Texas that they were free. Today, Juneteenth is a culturally significant day in African American history and was officially declared a federal holiday by President Biden in 2021.
Here’s our brief guide to Juneteenth, and its ongoing impact on freedom and equality.
Background to Juneteenth: The Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863 by President Lincoln, stated “that all held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are, and henceforward shall be free.” But as the Civil War drew to a close, thousands of African Americans remained enslaved as the Emancipation Proclamation could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control.
By the time Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Bay, and issued the order to free enslaved people in Texas on June 19th, 1865, slavery had been abolished two years earlier.
While June 19th commemorates the end of slavery, it wasn’t the end of all slavery in the US. Kentucky and Delaware didn’t adopt the 13th Amendment until December 18th, 1865, despite slavery being formally abolished on December 6th, 1865 with the official ratification of the 13th Amendment.
From community celebrations to Juneteenth federal holiday
Celebrations to mark the Emancipation Proclamation began on the eve of January 1st, 1862, when the first “Watch Night” or “Freedom’s Eve” services took place. As the Proclamation came into force at midnight, all enslaved people in rebelling Confederate States were declared free. Today, Watch Night is an annual event that takes place on New Year’s Eve, remembering the first night that African Americans watched and waited for their freedom.
From 1866, June 19th became a day of celebrations and festivals for African American communities. On January 1, 1980, Texas became the first state to officially celebrate Juneteenth as an emancipation celebration and state holiday. Since then, all 50 states and the District of Columbia recognize the date as a holiday or observance.
On June 17th, 2021, Juneteenth became the 11th American federal holiday and the first created since Martin Luther King Jr Day was established in 1983. It was a direct response to the protests that followed the deaths of black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.
During his remarks at the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, President Biden declared Juneteenth as marking “both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation, and a promise of a brighter morning to come.”
A 2021 Gallup poll noted that the signing of the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday raised awareness in the US about African American history. Six in 10 understood its significance, compared to just over one-third in May 2021.
Juneteenth significance: A renewed fight for freedom and equality
Juneteenth does not commemorate a single day but honors a fight for freedom and equality that is still ongoing. Admissions Counselor Deneshia Hearon, chair of CU Denver’s Black Faculty & Staff Affinity Group (BFSA), said, “Juneteenth is not just the end of slavery, but the acknowledgement of freedom.”
Juneteenth.com heralds the celebration of “African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures”, with a national and global significance.
For employers, Juneteenth offers an opportunity to pause, reflect and consider ways to foster a workplace culture of inclusion and belonging while supporting marginalized communities that experience social injustice.
All employers are encouraged to play their part in promoting freedom and equality in the workplace, as research continues to reveal the extent of social injustice and workplace disparities, for instance:
A 2022 report from the Economic Policy Institute revealed a 2-to-1 disparity in unemployment between black and white workers in the US labor market.
In 2021, 19.5% of black people living in the US were living below the poverty line, compared to 8.2% of white people and 8.1% of Asian people.
Women of color often experience a significantly larger pay gap. Black women earn just 58 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men.
While Equal Pay Day was marked on March 14th, 2023, for black women, Equal Pay Day will not take place until September 21st, 2023.
Taking steps towards pay equity for freedom and equality
To commemorate Juneteenth, employers can take steps towards achieving or reinforcing pay equity in the workplace, for instance:
Additional ideas incorporate advocating for major policy changes at a state or national level to ensure salaries are based on merit and equality. This includes a ban on employers from asking job candidates for their salary history. At a federal level, a national pay transparency bill was introduced on March 14th, 2023.
One way that HR and employers can contribute to freedom and equality is to consider ethnicity pay gap reporting. In April 2023, the UK governmentpublished new guidance for employers on how to address ethnicity pay differences. That guidance is a direct response to action 16 from Inclusive Britain, which committed the government to 74 actions to “level up unjust ethnic disparities.”
The Center for American Progress also offers 10 steps to achieve pay equity. Step 4 suggests the launch of a pay transparency initiative to improve employer accountability for pay practices. Step 4 cites the UK’s gender pay gap reporting which requires employers with 250 or more employers to publicly report on their gender pay gaps.
Additional strategies to help your organization celebrate Juneteenth all year include, raising awareness about Juneteenth, evaluating your DEI goals and initiatives, and understanding the importance of intersectionality and how it affects pay equity.
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