Yes, you’re hearing a lot more about Juneteenth this year. For some, the holiday may be a recent discovery. But it is the oldest nationally-celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865.
It was in that year, on June 19th, that Major General Gordon Granger led the Union soldiers into Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. These slaves were the last in the Confederacy to discover their freedom, and the discovery actually came two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect in early 1863.
For over 155 years, Black people in the US have heralded Juneteenth as a day of freedom. Given this year’s events—the protests in response to Black people murdered by police, living conditions of the poor being further degraded by the pandemic—it is getting overdue recognition. Juneteenth marks the very beginning of the movement for equality that is progressing before us today.
Although most states (plus the District of Columbia) have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth, it’s not yet a national holiday. But some notable brands and community groups aren’t waiting for government recognition to commemorate it. Companies like Twitter, Vox, Buzzfeed, Ogilvy, VSCO, Nike, Adobe, ZocDoc, and more are helping improve awareness for this critically important holiday by giving their employees the day off.
Mohammad Anwar, CEO of Houston-based digital agency Softway, explained his rationale for recognizing Juneteenth in a social media post. “As we continue to learn and grow as an organization, it has become clear to me that more must be done to celebrate POC in every way we can,” he wrote. “As a small step forward – and forevermore – Softway will recognize Juneteenth as a US Holiday so our team can take time off to reflect, learn, and collectively celebrate the end of slavery in the United States.”
Hella Creative, a collective of Bay Area friends & family that banded together to support one another at the height of COVID-19, created an initiative called Hella Juneteenth to educate the advertising, tech, and media industries on the holiday. Not only has the collective created a lighthouse of educational resources and a database of companies who will recognize the holiday, it’s also done the legwork for employees to get their companies to do the same. The group has made it easier than ever for individuals to contribute to a lasting change.
When Brooklyn-based digital agency Huge first recognized Juneteenth three years ago, the company started with a simple social media post. Its celebration eventually progressed to a sponsored trip to the National Museum of African American History in D.C. This year, the company announced global recognition of Juneteenth and will give all of its employees the holiday off.
Huge employee and senior QA analyst Apryl Gordy believes that a substantial commitment to celebrating this holiday is a necessary move. While she’s always done the work to advocate for Black and Brown employees, she thinks that agencies should be leading the charge because of their abilities to influence.
“With agencies, especially in advertising, we drive a lot of what people want,” Gordy said. “If different agencies take up the onus of what this holiday is and what this day of freedom means, we can make true change.”
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, hopes to bring about change at his own companies. “Countries and regions around the world have their own days to celebrate emancipation, and we will do the work to make those dates company holidays everywhere we are present,” he said in a Tweet.
To ensure that the holiday is commemorated properly, it’s been key for brands to communicate with Black employees and resources created by people of color. The pressure to celebrate the holiday should not fall on the shoulders of Black employees and executives—collaboration needs to happen across all levels to make a sustainable commitment to recognizing this important event in American history.
But diversity and inclusion in every industry isn’t just an issue of values and morals—it also makes good business sense. “We talk about the Black dollar a lot because it’s powerful. But the Black attention span is equally important,” said T. Lloyd, a communications strategist at the consulting firm Communications + Culture. “Attention becomes acquisition.”
Companies highlighting this day of freedom is bigger than just a holiday, it’s an acknowledgement of the history of a people. It’s bigger than support, it’s the beginning of a company culture that recognizes and celebrates diversity in intentional and impactful ways that can lead to change.
“If we as agencies can lead the charge in bringing to light the importance of this day, we can then start to acknowledge a lot more things that were wrong that weren’t talked about in history,” Gordy said. “If agencies can own that, we can challenge others to do the same.”