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The Forgotten Holiday: Juneteenth

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June 19, 1865 — Two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union, nearly 2.5 years after Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation and almost 90 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence —

Union Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas and the final 250,000 enslaved African-Americans were informed of their freedom. Why there was such an absurd delay has been the topic of much debate, but this day became known as Juneteenth and represents the day that the independence of Americans was truly recognized. 

Now, 45 states and Washington D.C. recognize June 19th as a state holiday, but we have yet to see recognition at the federal level. 250 years after enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown by pirates flying under a Dutch flag, African Americans were officially “freed.” What followed is over 150 years of Jim Crow laws, separate but equal, and redlining that maintained the station of Black Americans at a point that was intentionally designed to be below that of White Americans. Slavery was rebranded and institutionalized.

Many American holidays are contradictory. Christopher Columbus is held high for discovering America. The reality is that he didn’t discover America, instead he enslaved and brutalized Native Americans, yet we celebrate Columbus Day as a national holiday every year. Although the push to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is gaining traction, we’ve yet to see widespread adoption.

Thanksgiving is presented as a uniting of people to celebrate a harvest festival, when by many accounts it was the celebration for the safe return of a band of colonial volunteers after they slaughtered 700 members of the Pequod tribe.

In the worst kind of irony, Labor Day exists to recognize the American Labor movement, but most workers, who during COVID times would be considered essential, don’t actually get the day off to celebrate. If they’re lucky, they get holiday pay to go to work on the day that they — the true laborers — should be recognized. Then we have the nerve to deny many of them a livable wage, healthcare, and other basic needs. 

Finally, every year on July 4th Americans celebrate Independence Day. We shoot off fireworks, we have barbecues, parades, and concerts, all while flying our American flags. Independence Day is a duplicitous holiday for celebrating. There were still half a million enslaved Americans when the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Why have we put so much of our energy behind a holiday supposedly about freedom that excluded liberty for over 500,000 enslaved Americans? 

This contradiction mars nearly all of the discourse around American independence. Frederick Douglass said it best in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. 

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

At BAM, like many other companies, we recently added June 19th — Juneteenth — to our list of observed company holidays. It has become painfully obvious that this addition should have been made long ago. We get excited about barbecues or beach days, but need to recognize the privilege that comes along with getting to observe them. We must also reconcile the truth of some of the other holidays with the realities we’ve come to know.

Making a Federal holiday to commemorate Juneteenth is maybe the lowest hanging fruit on the tree as we face and change the course of the systemic challenges that have plagued Black life in America for nearly 400 years. At BAM, this is the first of many actions that we’re implementing. We’re committed to making a change as a company and a team.

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