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Here’s how corporate leaders should celebrate Juneteenth

June 17, 2022, 8:26 PM UTC

If we were living in a more traditional time, one defined by the great American playbook of forgetting and re-remembering, the story of Juneteenth would go a little something like this:

After a long and arduous ride, Major General Gordan Granger of the Union army, accompanied by 2,000 dedicated Union soldiers, arrived in Galveston Texas on June 19, 1865. He was there to deliver some surprising news—all slaves were now free by virtue of a federal executive order! Grateful slaves dropped their farm tools, or some such, and wandered off to start their lives with grateful hearts.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Juneteenth is as much a new federal holiday as it is a new concept for most people. I hadn’t heard of it until it became a Texas state holiday in 1980. Looking back, I thought I’d be in a position to know since I grew up surrounded by Great Migration legacy families. Never heard a word.

What most people know about the end of the chattel slavery system in America starts with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which “freed the slaves” effective at midnight on Jan 1, 1863. If you’re really a good student of history, you might know that freed and enslaved Black people gathered in homes and churches that night and counted down the minutes. That night was called “Freedom’s Eve” and it was exactly as emotional as you might imagine.

Or so I’ve heard.

But enslaved families living in Texas did not hear that news, nor did it officially apply to them. That part of the country was still in active rebellion. And yes, it took the arrival of federal troops on the day we now know as Juneteenth to let everyone know that slavery was over and Black people were free.  

We thank those men for their service.

The current attention to Juneteenth is an opportunity to dig a little deeper. The rescue narrative breezes by the fact that Texas was home to some 250,000 Black people who had been living in forced servitude. This event was personal. To be African American at that time was to live deeply in the question of what it meant to be free, and that work began for them immediately. Couples began affirming their marriages. Families began searching for each other. People began to leverage their skills into businesses; becoming barbers, morticians, cooks and chefs, teachers, cleaners, and journalists. Free public schools were built, churches erected, and communities were formed. By 1900, there were some 20,000 Black-owned businesses. And Black men became legislators in large numbers, working to ensure that the racist barriers embedded in the governance infrastructure of the country were removed for the benefit of everyone.

By 1875, the hope suggested by Reconstruction was gone, and states had reclaimed as much of the caste system as they could violently maintain. Which was a lot, quite frankly.

So, when I think about Juneteenth, I think about the gap.

The gap in time between Freedom’s Eve, 1863, and June 19, 1865. The gap between a weak federal authority intent on reconciliation, and the local, white citizenry focused on the business case for slavery. And now, the gap between the lived experience of Black people in the U.S., and the post-George Floyd declared intentions of employers, lawmakers, and other leaders.

My best advice for corporate leaders is to skip the Juneteenth merchandising efforts and zippy social media campaigns and focus on the gaps that exist in your sphere of influence. And please, show your work.

You may not be able to do anything about the racial wealth gap, but you can address the racial wage and pay gaps you likely maintain. You may not be able to do anything about the lack of representation of Black executives in the Fortune 500, but you can address the promotion gaps experienced by Black people in your company. You may not be able to do anything about Black maternal mortality, but you can make sure your benefits provide advocacy services for anyone with a reasonable expectation of a troubling outcome for their pregnancy. Or you can help those navigating the home buying market with no legacy of family wealth. Or you can assist those disproportionately burdened by student loans. You can ensure that people retire with dignity.

Or who have been hurt by your products or practices in the past.

Juneteenth has become a proxy day to mark the messy, slow-moving roll of freedom as it occurred across the U.S. If we are in the mood to add more paid holidays that celebrate the moment when the good news reached the ears of enslaved people, there are plenty of options.

At various times, September 22, July 4, August 1, April 6, and November 1 were all considered local “Jubilee” days of emancipation celebration at some point. And I’d love to take some paid time off to honor the Sicilian children who were kidnapped, trafficked, and forced to be street criminals freed by the Padrone Act, passed on June 23, 1874.

Of course, February 7 would be the big one. It’s when Mississippi finally got around to ratifying the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which officially abolished slavery, albeit, with a loophole. Of course, that was in 2013, so that might be petty of me. (It was an oversight.)

Either way, enjoy your paid day off if you’re lucky enough to have one, and remember to mind the gap.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On background: More micro-moments of joy

I was overjoyed to receive so much affirmation for the micro-moments of joy concept, which encourages everyone to notice, plan for, and enjoy anything that delights you enough to take you out of the worry of your world, and back to yourself. I find the practice has been surprisingly beneficial on all fronts. In light of the holiday, let’s get started early. If you're willing, please share yours. Subject line: joy

Here are more to get you started:

Juneteenth is all about Black joy. And there are influential “joymakers” who can help you understand why.

A whole new world? I’m in awe of the hours of work it must have taken to bring this delightful 36-second rendition of the Disney tune from Aladdin to life, so I watched it 250 times in tribute. Sound on.

Love is found in the regular moments Audio journalist B.A. Parker (now the new cohost of the Code Switch podcast) began recording calls with her father and grandmother because she was worried about them. She turned what she captured into a poignant audio essay for Invisibilia about love, family, and the ties that bind.

Behind the scenes at Chili’s I do not know who these men are (still looking) but this clip of the creation of the iconic Baby Back Ribs jingle will give you life. Watch til the end.

Surfing seals know about joy.

Missing Missy is a classic entry from the radical comedic ramblings of designer David Thorne. If you are a creative genius, continually put upon and undervalued for what you do, his not-so-subtle revenge will fill you with glee.

The extraordinary Kanneh-Mason siblings have become award-winning stars in the classical music world, though they catapulted more broadly into the public eye when the third oldest brother Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Together, they are Isata (25), Braimah (24), Sheku (22), Konya (21), Jeneba (19), Aminata (16) and Mariatu (12). There are no wrong choices, but Redemption Song feels right.

Parting words

"I was six when I started playing the cello — my six siblings and I all took up instruments at a young age. Music practice can be isolating, so it was comforting having other people practicing in the next room. I would go to music courses where there were no other Black people apart from my siblings. Having them there made me feel less alone and meant that I was never fazed by performing, even after being diagnosed with type one diabetes at 12."

Sheku Kanneh-Mason

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