The Importance of Juneteenth (B1-B2/v22695)

Introduction

Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of African-Americans who had been enslaved in the United States. Originating in Galveston, Texas, it is now an annual Federal Holiday on June 19th throughout the country.

Script

Henry McGee, Senior Lecturer and MBA 1979 Harvard Business School:  Although Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863, Texas slaveholders deliberately withheld the information from the enslaved people on their ranches and plantations.

Caleb Bradford MPP/MBA 2021 Harvard Business School:  Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates when the last enslaved African-Americans were informed of their freedom and the fact that the Civil War had ended. This took place on June 19th, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.

McGee:  The news ignited celebrations among the quarter-million formerly enslaved Americans in Texas, but the fact that the news took so long to get to them underscored the resistance to change and the battle for economic justice and social equality continues to this very day.

Bradford:  For the majority of my life, I’ve had Juneteenths where it’s purely been unadulterated, unbridled celebration. And then there was last year, Juneteenth 2020, where I felt more aggrieved, more pensive as I, along with the rest of the Black community, was once again disabused of this illusion that the country and, in particular, its justice system was designed to treat us fairly, to treat us as human beings when it just wasn’t.

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, among way too many others, reckoning around systemic racism was brought to the national conscience and Juneteenth was then catapulted front and center.

My experience has been that every day I confront a world where my body is threatened, my security is not guaranteed even by those who my taxes pay to provide that security.

McGee:  It’s important that we celebrate Juneteenth as a powerful reminder of the promise of American democracy and also to recognize the horrible legacy of slavery and the impact it still has on all of our lives.  Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday**.

Importantly, corporate America is increasingly acknowledging the importance of celebrating Juneteenth as a way of both focusing on the struggles of their Black employees and practicing allyship. It’s key that corporations make the celebration of Juneteenth an important part of their diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Bradford: I wholeheartedly believe and know that we can achieve a more just society, establish more ethical business practices, build more unity, celebrate diversity, and share prosperity. Better is possible.

McGee:  Juneteenth has a special significance for my family. My grandfather Henry W. McGee Sr. was born in Hillsboro, a small town in Texas, in 1910. His father, William McGee, was born in 1865, the year that enslaved Texans learned that they were free.

Bradford:  I feel that one of the important gifts of Juneteenth for the nation is a moment to reflect, a moment to evaluate, have candid conversation, and, I think, ask yourself, is my public rhetoric in lockstep with my private action? If your public rhetoric and private action aren’t in lockstep, Juneteenth is an opportunity to rectify that.

McGee:  I urge all Americans to join together to celebrate this special day and rededicate themselves to making American society just and fair for all.

 **On July 17th, 2021 President Joseph R. Biden signed into law a declaration making Juneteenth a national holiday for every American in perpetuity from this day forward.  Vice President Kamala Harris, the first female and Black vice president, said designating a federal holiday “makes an important statement.” “These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history,” Harris said, urging people to be clear-eyed about the realities of slavery and the long fight for freedom.

Quiz

1. The news of their freedom ignited celebrations among the quarter-million ________ enslaved Americans in Texas.
2. Reckoning around systemic racism was brought to the national conscience in 2020 and Juneteenth was then catapulted ________.
3. My experience as Black American man has been that every day I confront a world where my body is ________, my security is not guaranteed.
4. It's important that we celebrate Juneteenth as a powerful ________ of the promise of American democracy.
5. Importantly, corporate America is increasingly acknowledging the importance of celebrating Juneteenth as a way of both focusing on the ________ of their Black employees and practicing allyship.

Discussion

  1. Are you familiar with the American Civil War (1861-1865) that led to the end of the institution of slavery in the US?
  2. Have you ever heard of “Juneteenth”, a holiday commemorating an important event just after the end of the war?
  3. What are some of the urgent issues facing Black Americans today?  What policies and practices might help resolve some of these problems?

Resources