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How Juneteenth became a corporate movement

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Hi, everyone. This is Aric Jenkins, staff writer at Fortune. As Ellen mentioned in the June 5 edition of the newsletter, I’m joining the raceAhead team as a partner and collaborator. That mostly means I’ll be in the background as Ellen’s editor and curator, because Ellen’s writing is terrific and essential and I don’t want to get in her way even though she swears she doesn’t see it that way. 

Sometimes, like today, I will jump in, because Ellen is not just tolerant of the idea of me writing; she’s actively encouraging me to do it. I’m grateful for her support and honored to have a voice here. I’m really looking forward to engaging with the raceAhead community. Feel free to write to me at aric.jenkins@fortune.com and follow me on Twitter.

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With that introduction out of the way, let me get into this week’s subject at hand: Juneteenth. The annual holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States has long been a regional observance, particularly among Black Americans in Texas, where the celebration first originated. Many people in the U.S. were unaware of its existence, or what exactly Juneteenth celebrated, judging from Google Trends search data and the amount of explainers published over the past week.

Yet this morning, my colleagues and I found out that this year’s Juneteenth, which falls this Friday, will be a paid day off “to underscore the importance of making progress in correcting a history of injustice,” per our CEO Alan Murray. Fortune’s recognition of Juneteenth puts us alongside media peers BuzzFeed, Vox, The Atlantic, and the New York Times. Beyond our industry: Twitter, Square, Nike, Postmates, the National Football League, TikTok, Target, Adobe, Glossier, Lyft, Mastercard, Spotify, Quicken Loans, JCPenney, and many more.

Altogether, around 200 companies so far have pledged to make this June 19th a paid holiday, said Miles Dotson, co-founder of the Bay Area-based, majority-Black collective HellaCreative. The group can lay claim as the catalyst to this national movement, having created the HellaJuneteenth website to inform and advocate for an official national holiday to “reclaim our time” from the legacy of slavery in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

Hearing the news of Floyd’s death was grim, infuriating. “Day by day we were thinking of what to do,” Dotson told me. “We had our weekly Zoom happy hour and thought about what’s coming up. Juneteenth’s coming up. Can we do something around it? It’s not a national holiday, let’s see what we can do.”

Dotson and his peers set up a website with a clean template and powerful black and white imagery. It launched the first week of June before “spreading like wildfire” over the weekend. That included Slack. Internal messaging boards. Direct messages. Social media. By Tuesday, June 9, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that Juneteeth would become a permanent annual holiday for the companies. Said Dotson: “A member of our community is a legacy Square employee and said, ‘Hey, this is amazing, can you be one of the first companies to sign our commitment?’ And then from [Dorsey’s] posting, it really took off.”

The number and range of large corporations committing to Juneteenth as a paid holiday is impressive and encouraging. I asked Channing Godfrey Peoples, director of the upcoming film Miss Juneteenth and a native of Fort Worth, Texas—where Juneteenth has been celebrated for generations—what she thought about it. “The legacy of slavery is woven into the fabric of our country’s history and how ALL Americans navigate our present,” she wrote in an email. “I think a day of observance of this history and future we want to create is appropriate.”

She added: “It would be disappointing to me if this was just a one year acknowledgement.” 

Make note of the companies that are doing this as a one-time show of solidarity because of the pressures of the current unrest. They will likely be vague in their Juneteenth announcements and describe the holiday as occurring “this year.” These companies still deserve credit for giving employees a day off following a difficult and exhausting few weeks for Black Americans, but this is an important distinction—particularly if we want to see Juneteenth become a national holiday. Having that happen is about so much more than having a day off to barbecue (in post-pandemic times).

“If you look in the continuum of American history, we might have Black History Month but the embellishment is about individualism—we don’t have a holiday to signify the transition from one identity that America had to another,” Dotson told me. “I don’t think we fully emancipated Black Americans. 1865 was the launchpad to the next period, and that should be acknowledged and celebrated widely by all those that benefit from that clarity.”

Well said. And with that said, I hope those of you who have this Friday off are able to enjoy a safe and socially distant Juneteenth with family and friends. Here’s to hoping that next year we can gather in larger numbers, and that companies still give us the time and space to do so.

Aric Jenkins
@aricwithan_a
Aric.Jenkins@fortune.com

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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