2022 will be only the second year that Juneteenth is recognized as a federal holiday, but it will be the first year that many workplaces and organizations officially recognize Juneteenth.
For Black Americans, Juneteenth has been an occasion to celebrate for over a century. But it’s important to remember that this day should be commemorated by all Americans. It’s a collective opportunity to celebrate progress and liberation, while also noting challenges we still face in achieving true equity — whether in health, education, or criminal justice.
Message from our CEO
The Black Women’s Health Imperative is staunchly committed to the health and wellness of Black women and girls and recognizes that the fight for health equity in America is the fight for racial justice. For nearly 40 years, we have stood on the front lines, tirelessly working to inform, serve and bring life-saving programs and research to Black women and communities. Acknowledging our past is essential to understanding the present battle for racial and health equity.
2022 has been an opportunity to reflect on encouraging progress as well as heartbreaking challenges. In the same year that we witnessed the confirmation of the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, we also watched in horror as Black people were gunned down in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
Juneteenth is not just a holiday for Black America. It is a victory for every American. It is a call for all of us to come together and recognize our shared humanity. And it’s a chance for our nation to unify around the shared ideals of progress, equity and justice.
What is Juneteenth?
The term “Juneteenth” is the melding of the month of June and the 19th day of the month as June 19, 1865, is the date that officially commemorates the last groups of enslaved people learning of their freedom. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being passed several months prior, news of emancipation did not spread as rapidly as news spreads today. Juneteenth marks the day that the final groups of enslaved people living in Texas were freed.
A Little History Lesson
Prior to the Civil War, many of the Southern states — strongly dependent on the contributions of enslaved Black people to keep their economies, towns, and even their households functioning — decided to secede, or break away, from the rest of the nation. The Confederate States of America formed and grew to include 13 states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
While the Civil War ravaged the South, some slaveowners migrated to western-most Texas to flee the middle of the action. This migration included over 150,000 enslaved people, according to some accounts. Slavery indeed existed in certain parts of Texas, but there were no major invasions in the state during the early parts of the Civil War. So slavery, for many, functioned as it did before the war. Interestingly, slavery had developed quite differently in Texas than it had in other Southern states; the numbers of slaves in the state didn’t grow exponentially until after 1850, when Texas gained statehood.
Slavery was supposedly abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued in 1863, but this was only in certain states. It wasn’t until the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1865, that the Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished slavery. Enslaved people throughout the Confederate states anxiously awaited the news of official emancipation and were able to embrace it to some degree, especially in places where troops had marched and made the announcement. However, Texas still functioned almost separately from the other states, extending the existence of slavery.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger, accompanied by federal troops, formally announced emancipation in Galveston, Texas. But freedom was no easy feat in Texas, considering the strange adoption and stubbornness of the institution in the state. The delay of freedom caused confusion and disarray among Texans. However, the confusion and delay surrounding emancipation was not strong enough to break the spirit of newly freed Black Americans. Thus, Juneteenth was born from the prayers, love, feasting, spirit, song, and ultimately the freedom of the men and women gaining a sense of personhood and liberation that June 19.
The following year in 1866, the first official Juneteenth celebrations began and have continued ever since.
Black Women’s Health is Under Threat
Today, the average life expectancy of Black Americans is shorter than that of non-Black people, and Black Americans and their families are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases and the burdens of these diseases. In addition, despite cancer and heart disease affecting all Americans, these conditions disproportionately affect Black Americans.
Black women are in even more fragile health situations for various historic and socioeconomic reasons. During slavery, the Black woman’s body was of immense interest to those in positions of power; this interest simultaneously made these women’s bodies sites of egregious abuse. The higher rates of chronic disease that we see in Black women today are direct products of the legacy of American slavery as they are all firmly rooted in the racial, economic, and social inequities left behind by this “peculiar institution.”
Current efforts to roll-back women’s reproductive rights, which disproportionately target Black women, are just one example of the continued attempts to strip away Black women’s bodily autonomy and deteriorate our health. In our country, Black women are five times more likely than white women to need an abortion, and three times more likely to die from pregnancy. They’re also more likely to live in states that have historically placed the most serious restrictions on access to abortion services.
Overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court precedent would force many Black women to carry unwanted pregnancies to full term, resulting in devastating health and economic repercussions that will last for generations.
Ways to Celebrate Juneteenth
You never need anyone’s approval to acknowledge dates that you think should be celebrated. So just as you find creative ways to celebrate other important dates, the same can be done on Juneteenth!
Some of the traditional ways Juneteenth was celebrated included festivals and outdoor gatherings, events involving family and friends, and religious and educational gatherings. Here are a few more ideas to help you acknowledge Juneteenth as the holiday it is:
- Fire up the grill just as you would on July 4 and engage in typical Independence Day activities. After all, Juneteenth does represent the independence of the last groups of enslaved Black people. Why not bust out the sparklers for some added magic?
- A Thanksgiving- or Christmas-styled family dinner is also a great way to celebrate Juneteenth. This could be made more complete by gifting t-shirts, keychains, or other small tokens by which we acknowledge some part of Black culture. Such an exchange gives us an opportunity to support a Black-owned business that makes Juneteenth apparel or anything else “for the culture.” Another way to add family fun is to plan a small art project, such as a guided painting session, that children and adults can enjoy.
- Check your local news outlets and activity listings as many people acknowledge and publicly celebrate Juneteenth in parks and other public locations. For example, in Atlanta, there’s a litany of scheduled activities including a 5K, a fashion show, day parties, homeless drives, and more.
In the nation’s capital, many of the Black Women’s Health Imperative’s supporters will be attending various community events celebrating Juneteenth. Those who live or work in the area should consider attending the various block parties, music festivals, and art exhibits that will occur on the holiday weekend.
- Another way to celebrate and acknowledge Juneteenth from the comfort of your home is to search Freedmen’s Bureau records. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress in 1865 to support newly freed men and women by providing various services to support them in their transition. Although Congress withdrew support of the Bureau less than 10 years after its inception, Freedmen’s Bureau records contain a wealth of information on Black Americans, with information dating back to the 1800s. A starting point to search these records may begin at https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/2721171
- Support your local Black-owned businesses by indulging in a dinner out.
- Take time for mental and physical rest. Juneteenth, while a celebration, can be emotionally and physically draining. Rest can be a way to honor our bodies and minds on a day dedicated to celebrating bodily autonomy and freedom.
- Engage in self-care activities. Dancing, listening to music, spending time with family and friends, and engaging in outdoor activities like running, being near water, or walking a nature trail, can be great ways to celebrate.
- Host and provide safe and healing spaces for members of your community to mourn, breathe, and relax as they reflect on the day.
- Donate to Black-owned businesses and organizations. You can donate to the Black Women’s Health Imperative here: https://bwhi.org/donate/
- Acknowledge the holiday by sending a Juneteenth-themed e-mail to your coworkers, team, or colleagues. Even though it is a federal holiday, many Americans are still unaware of the existence and the history of Juneteenth. Sending an informative holiday message would be a great way to bring attention to a holiday that should be recognized and celebrated by anyone who desires to live in a racially equitable society.
Fair Work Initiative
Speaking of the workplace, it’s worth calling attention to the Black Women’s Health Imperative Fair Work Initiative. Science has consistently demonstrated the link between racism and gender discrimination experienced in the workplace and the higher prevalence of chronic health conditions among Black women. In other words, workplace racism has real impacts on Black bodies and Black health.
We know we cannot shy away from this ugly truth if we want to change it. That’s why the Fair Work Initiative seeks to call out and unearth these realities in a constructive way, while also providing corporate leaders with evidence-based, science-backed tools and resources to root out workplace discrimination and create lasting, tangible change.
Just as Juneteenth recognizes the challenges that Black people have historically faced and the important progress we’ve made so far, the Fair Work Initiative focuses on addressing persisting challenges to a fairer, more equitable society for all.