The holiday is both a celebration of Black culture and an opportunity to take specific actions to advance equity.

Juneteenth (sometimes known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day) is a celebration of Black culture and freedom that has carried great significance since it was first proclaimed a holiday in 1865. The June 19 date commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.

As our country wrestles with its deep history of racism, the holiday is gaining more traction and meaning. In the wake of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder and other police-involved killings of Black people, our country is reckoning with systemic and institutional racism and the lasting effects of white supremacy. 

“Systemic racism and implicit bias are infused across too many of our systems,” says Jody Levison-Johnson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities-Council on Accreditation (Alliance-COA). “While we recognize the work that has taken place thus far to increase equity and opportunity, we must continue to build on it, and acknowledge that the road ahead of us is long, and that we must work toward change at the individual, organizational, community, and system levels.”

Juneteenth provides the opportunity to reflect and engage in several ways:

“There is much work to be done, but community-based organizations, because of their deep legacies and connectedness with their neighbors have a great opportunity to amplify the observance and recognition of Black culture and its contribution to the building of America,” says Undraye Howard, senior director of equity, diversity, and inclusion and engagement. “Nonprofits, public agencies, and businesses working to help all families thrive must look to move the needle on the adoption of equitable practices and policies on a systemic level.”

The History of Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation Sept. 22, 1862, and it became official Jan. 1, 1863. However, it took two-and-a-half years for Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, to arrive in Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people had been freed. Historians are still examining that period in history and have identified a few possible reasons, all grounded in racism, that allowed slavery to continue past its official end.

Gen. Granger read the following proclamation, General Order Number 3, to the people in Texas:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

This declaration of freedom was significant, even if the realities for formerly enslaved people were still brutal and uncertain. A wave of migration began, to reunify families torn apart and to relocate to the industrialized North. 

According to the National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters, Juneteenth first became a major celebration and gathering of families in Texas, with many formerly enslaved people journeying back to Galveston in the decades following the proclamation. The color red became associated with Juneteenth, to represent the resilience of formerly enslaved people. Juneteenth celebrations were often held on church property; they were often banned from taking place in public areas controlled by white people.

Juneteenth Today

Today, Juneteenth is recognized and commemorated in communities across the country. It is an opportunity for organizations across the social sector to educate, advocate, and celebrate. Here are some ideas for marking Juneteenth at your organization, based on recommendations from the National Registry of Juneteenth Organizations & Supporters:

Examples from Three Organizations 

The Alliance-COA will close its offices June 18 in recognition of the holiday and will hold a Brown Bag Lunch session to discuss Juneteenth, its history, and its significance. Here are some examples of ways that community-based organizations are planning to celebrate Juneteenth:

What Happens Beyond Juneteenth?

The goal of Juneteenth is to commemorate the historical emancipation of enslaved people, but also to advance equity for Black Americans, who still do not experience true freedom as they encounter barriers to safety, health, and well-being. Opportunities abound for making equity a year-round commitment for your organization.