Why Juneteenth Matters: Celebrating its History and Continuing the Fight for Freedom and EquityJune 17, 2022
America’s second Independence Day.
Juneteenth has gone by many names throughout the centuries, but for the majority of Americans, it is still often misunderstood and underappreciated. It has been almost a year since President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, recognizing this important day in American history as a federal holiday to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved peoples and the end of slavery.
We are at an inflection point as a country. We face multiple and reinforcing threats to our democracy, economy, and lives through dangerous partisan gamesmanship, corporate economic exploitation, and state violence against marginalized communities. Celebrating and reconciling the nuances of Juneteenth is more consequential now than ever before in our country’s history if we want to live up to our most cherished and espoused values.
As more Americans learn about the significance and history of Juneteenth, we must commit ourselves to authentically confront the darkest moments of our nation’s past. This is paramount to building a future where all are equal, safe, healthy, and can fully access the rights and liberties enshrined in our founding documents.
Whatever name you choose to mark this recently recognized federal holiday, Juneteenth is one of our country’s significant anniversaries.
A Long Overdue Message: The History of Juneteenth
Juneteenth derives its name from combining “June” and “Nineteenth”— a blistering Monday 157 years ago when Union Major General Gordon Granger led soldiers to Galveston, Texas to deliver a long-awaited and life-changing message. The war was finally over, the Union prevailed, and those enslaved were finally, at last, free.
“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” — General Orders, Number 3; Galveston, Texas, June 19th, 1865
This message to the enslaved people of Galveston came almost two months after the end of the Civil War and approximately two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In the interim period and at the height of the Civil War, over 200,000 Black people enlisted to fight for their freedom.
Despite the legal death of slavery, approximately 250,000 Black people in Texas still were not free, even after Granger’s announcement. Slave-owners still had some agency over when and how to announce the news or wait for government agents to arrive to enforce order No. 3. Also, it wasn’t uncommon for slave-owners to delay Black people their freedom until after harvest season or deny their new freedom entirely.
After securing their freedom, June 19th or “Juneteenth” became a day of celebration and commemoration of the resiliency of a people subjected to a brutality whose legacy we continue to struggle with today. Additionally—and perhaps more importantly—it is an opportunity to honor and celebrate how Black people have contributed to this country and made us all freer.
Why Juneteenth Matters
Juneteenth is a day both somber and celebratory. A day to commemorate the abolishment of slavery and how America came a little closer to being “the land of the free.”
It celebrates the historic and enduring resiliency of Black people and communities in this country. It compels us to reflect honestly on this country’s complicated relationship with its most fundamental tenet—freedom. This introspection of America’s most espoused values in the context of Juneteenth is necessary at this moment—when our freedoms are threatened, liberties are eroding, and the progress so many have struggled and died for is at stake.
Juneteenth pushes us to not forget the horror that was slavery—its brutal, inhuman impact on the people enslaved and our country—and its devastating legacy that we continue to grapple with.
But this holiday is also an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the strength and humanity of Black communities. And our country’s potential to emerge from its darkest moments with a vision of what is possible if we worked together—with resolve, purpose, and understanding—to realize ideals that this country strives to uphold.
We should celebrate the moments in our past when we changed directions, diverged from long-held patterns and norms, and pursued new paths to do and be better.
Juneteenth is a reference point—symbolically and literally—from which to measure and appreciate the progress that has been fought for and organize and tackle the work that lies ahead.
Our journey to make America all it can be begins with confronting and reconciling the most painful moments of our history. We cannot ignore, ban, or sanitize our past; we must embrace it with humility and unapologetic honesty and transparency.
Addressing anti-Blackness and Racial Disparities in Philanthropy
This Juneteenth, I am cognizant of the role (or lack thereof) that philanthropy has historically played in investing and supporting Black-led organizations and leaders. Historically, philanthropy has harmed many communities of color, particularly Black communities. It has perpetuated harmful practices that have propagated its wealth and power at the expense and disinvestment of said communities. With only 4% of philanthropic dollars in America going to organizations led by people of color, there is so much work that we in the field must do to correct this imbalance and do better.
We must be honest about how philanthropy has fallen short in confronting its anti-Blackness and has and continues to disinvest in Black communities. In 2017, A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities published a report that discovered that the nation’s largest foundations were directing less than 2% of their funding to Black organizations. As a sector, we must acknowledge this ingrained pattern of disinvestment and work to disrupt and unlearn these practices. Black-led organizations and leaders deserve long-term investment and support from the sector to achieve their vision and build the infrastructure necessary for widespread systems-level change to address the issues we face.
As a leader in the field, New Profit sits in a unique position. I am proud to see how we have worked diligently to align our vision and work to become more proximate to BIPOC leaders and organizations by recognizing the field’s historic disinvestment in them, and the significant progress we have made. However, we are not there yet and still have work to do. We know we cannot become complacent in our progress. We recognize the power dynamics we bring to our partners as a funder and strive to unlearn practices and beliefs that have defined the field to best support our entrepreneurs and organizations. This is an ongoing journey and commitment to learning and growing alongside the innovative, brilliant leaders and organizations we support.
As the county faces rising economic instability from the pandemic, sociopolitical turmoil, and an erosion of democratic norms and institutions, the philanthropic sector must support and invest in communities most proximate to the issues we face. And learn and lead with them as true partners to build an America where all are safe, healthy, and can thrive.
This Juneteenth and every day moving forward, we must not only focus on diversifying our portfolios as a sector but intentionally dismantle white supremacist practices and norms, and how we privilege whiteness at the expense of BIPOC communities and align our actions with our values.
What Does It Mean to Be Free?
The challenges ahead of us as a society are daunting. It will require a bold reimagining of some of the most cherished ideals we hold as a society: What does it mean to be free? What does an equitable, inclusive society look like, and how can we get there?
These are not easy questions, nor should they be. But I, my colleagues, and the social entrepreneurs we work with do not shy away from the difficulty and complexity these questions bring. The movement to build an equitable society will require a powerfully broad mosaic of leaders to work in solidarity to disrupt and dismantle inequitable systems that hold the conditions in place that perpetuate the issues we face.
A multiracial, intergenerational, cross-sector coalition of committed people is how we begin the restorative process of repairing and healing a divided democracy. Juneteenth is not just a Black holiday; it is an American one. It not only commemorates the past. It compels us to act today for a brighter, inclusive tomorrow.
Mohamed Nur is a Senior Associate on our Portfolio team.