A Company Holiday for Juneteenth Isn’t 'Nice' – It’s Essential for Equity

A Company Holiday for Juneteenth Isn’t 'Nice' – It’s Essential for Equity

In response to 2020’s civil rights movement, companies began to honor Juneteenth. Learn why it’s a signal for equity and equality at work.
In 2020, America faced a racial reckoning after the high-profile murders of innocent Black people by police and vigilantes. In its quest to make racial equity and justice the norm for Black Americans, Black Lives Matter protests spread rapidly across America, becoming the largest civil rights movement on the globe. In the weeks after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, some millions of Americans participated in demonstrations against anti-Black brutality.1

The movement's escalation wasn't limited to America's streets. It became a cry for U.S. corporations to rethink whether they reflected equity for Black employees in their organizational policies and programs. Acting to advance diversity, equity and inclusion beyond traditional efforts, corporate America engaged in multiple initiatives aimed at addressing racial disparities in the workplace.2

This ranged from increasing access to capital and opportunities for Black-owned businesses to employers amplifying Black culture within their organizations.3 For many, that included making Juneteenth, the celebration of the official end of Black enslavement in America, a companywide holiday.

On June 6, 2020, Twitter made a public commitment to recalibrating its culture. Their announcement stated, “Both Twitter and Square are making #Juneteenth (June 19th) a company holiday in the U.S., forevermore. A day for celebration, education and connection.”4

Juneteenth: A True Celebration of American Liberation

Short for “June 19th,” the observance represents the day in 1865 when federal troops entered Galveston, Texas, taking control of the state and ending enslavement for that state's African Americans. While Lincoln's September 1862 emancipation proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, Black people remained enslaved in areas lacking the presence of Union troops to enforce it, including Texas.

Slaves there were the last in America to receive full freedom when U.S. General Gordon Granger, standing on Texas soil, recited General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The ratification of the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery in the U.S. in 1865.

“That makes Juneteenth the anniversary of when slavery actually ended in the United States," explained Alaina Morgan, assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California specializing in race and ethnicity in America and the African Diaspora.

A celebration was organized as an annual event called “Jubilee Day” in 1866 by freed Black people in Texas. From then through the mid-20th century, the annual celebration increased throughout the South and surged in popularity nationwide after the Civil Rights movement. In 1979, Texas made Juneteenth an official holiday, and it's now a state holiday in 47 states.

The day is commemorated with church services, food, music, parties and African American-themed cultural events. It is tradition to fly the red, black and green African American liberation flag and sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” James Weldon Johnson wrote this song, called the Black National Anthem, as a poem which he performed for Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900. His brother, John Rosamond, put the poem to music in 1905.

Today, Juneteenth, the Black National Anthem and the African American liberation flag all represent a call to racial equity and justice. This is something many Americans, regardless of race, have begun demanding.
“It's important to recalibrate the narratives Americans believe about liberty by celebrating Juneteenth, which truly recognizes full freedom.”
– Alaina Morgan, Assistant Professor of History, University of Southern California
When considering these symbols and the celebration itself, Professor Morgan asks Americans to consider how Juneteenth reflects America's core values around freedom for all. “Juneteenth should be the predominant holiday celebrating American freedom,” she said. “It wasn't until Juneteenth that there were no more Americans in bondage.”

Though July 4th has come to represent American freedom at-large, that freedom only truly applied to White men. “It's important to recalibrate the narratives Americans believe about liberty by celebrating Juneteenth, which truly recognizes full freedom," Morgan added.

Making a Public Commitment to Celebrating Juneteenth Companywide

After Twitter’s tweet went viral, the company encouraged other organizations to make Juneteenth a permanent holiday and add their names to a website presented by HellaCreative, a grassroots organization based in the Bay Area that's campaigning to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

More than 655 companies responded, publicly announcing that they would make Juneteenth a companywide holiday. This included Fortune 500 companies like Mastercard, Adobe, Netflix, Uber, Starbucks and Target.
Other companies that made media announcements about celebrating Juneteenth, at least for 2020, include PNC Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Google, the NFL, Nike, Ford and Tesla.
The Hartford also made a public pledge and will recognize Juneteenth as a companywide holiday permanently starting in 2021.

Weaving Juneteenth Into a Culture of Diversity

In late May and early June 2020, calls to recognize Juneteenth rapidly increased. With its internal and external stakeholders in mind, The Hartford acted. Leaders at the company saw this as another opportunity to modernize its employee policies and show their industry leadership in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion innovation.

“We were working diligently on the next level of our diversity and inclusion strategy, which, among other initiatives, called for greater aspects of equity in talent outcomes for the company," said Susan Johnson, chief diversity and inclusion officer at The Hartford.
Part of The Hartford’s emphasis on inclusivity meant embracing Black culture as American culture within the company, and that led to adding Juneteenth on The Hartford's holiday calendar as a paid holiday for all company employees. “It was part of our commitment to doing more as it relates to racial equity. And it put us on the leading edge of what other companies do," Johnson said.
“This is not an event that only Black African Americans celebrate. It's part of American history.”
– Susan Johnson, Chief D&I Officer, The Hartford
But she wanted to convey that the observation wouldn't be just another paid day off. "I'm happy we'll take the day to celebrate with our communities and families in ways that are important to us," she says. "But we're going to celebrate the holiday internally, too," she says. “This is not an event that only Black African Americans celebrate. It's part of American history," Johnson stated.
“The Hartford has been an American corporation for over 200 years, so we have a long history," she said. Adding Juneteenth to the company's holiday calendar as another paid holiday "just reinforces what The Hartford has long been about.”
Last June – as it will do again this year – The Hartford lit up its company tower in the African American liberation flag colors of red, black and green in celebration of Juneteenth. “That was hugely significant and got a lot of interest and attention from the public outside of the company,” said Johnson.

Making Juneteenth a Company Holiday Is a Smart DEI Move

Releasing statements about the importance of economic and social equity and justice initiatives for Black Americans and making large contributions to support initiatives are important steps corporations can take. However, these moves aren't typically ongoing sustainable pledges the way Juneteenth as a companywide holiday can be.

“Corporate leaders may feel concerned about the cost of giving everyone a paid holiday off where they're not working and helping their companies make money,” Morgan said. “But this holiday is recognizing emancipation from unpaid labor to employees," she added. This is particularly true for Black personnel who are often asked to take on extra tasks to promote, support and/or represent their company in diversity initiatives like Black History Month and other programs that advance DEI in organizations. “It says to those employees, 'We value your labor enough to give you a paid day away from your labor to observe this country's real first holiday commemorating the agency of all its people,'" Morgan explained.
Companies that don't do this may lose more than the cost of a day off for all employees. “Your top talent may notice and leave your company for another that does recognize the holiday,” she asserted. “Customers may also buy from competitors who've made Juneteenth a paid companywide holiday."
For Johnson, the intention of Juneteenth is clear. “Everybody, regardless of race, culture and background should celebrate American freedom.”
Dahna M. Chandler, MPS
Dahna M. Chandler
Dahna M. Chandler, MPS, is a journalist covering finance, business and insurance. She is currently an Organizational Change and Leadership doctoral student at USC.