This June 20th marked roughly one year since US Congress declared Juneteenth a federal public holiday, and the first year that it was being celebrated nationally. 157 years have passed since Union troops liberated the enslaved in Texas that first Juneteenth. At the height of last year’s racial reckoning, amid mass protests againstthe murder of George Floyd, as well as the ongoing COVID pandemic, the Juneteenth Bill managed to make its way through one of the most partisan of Congresses in American history and onto the books as settled law. Juneteenth, a miracle in public policy, marked the first new federal holiday since MLK Day passed in 1983.
One year ago, the Senate had enough sponsors to make Juneteenth a holiday, save for the objections of Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who objected to the official commemoration of the end of slavery on the grounds that it gave federal workers yet another day off. He was the final Senate holdout on the holiday, but ultimately relented.
The passage of the Juneteenth Bill is a redemption story for the ages, but the story of Juneteenth’s coming-to-be is not just about the end of slavery. The distance between the Emancipation Proclamation and the liberation of those slaves in Galveston Bay, Texas on June 19, 1865 is a large part of the story of Juneteenth, however, the Juneteenth story is also about redemption after Reconstruction and the century of rolling back the brief racial equity gains made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
The story goes a little deeper. It begins after President Lincoln’s murder and the subsequent election of 1876 – on the nation’s centennial – that resulted in a stalemate. New York Governor, Samuel Tilden, scored a slight, but not decisive Electoral College victory over Ohio Governor, Rutherford B Hayes. To resolve that tenuous situation, Republicans struck a secret deal with Southern Congressional Democrats to deny full rights to African Americans as citizens. The deal, known as the , effectively brought Reconstruction to a close by ending the Northern occupation of the South.
That year, 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from former Confederate states in the South, he essentially left African Americans to fend for themselves amidst a hugely racist society. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented “4084 racial terror lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, which is at least 800 more lynchings in these states than previously reported”. In 2022, African Americans experience racial disparities in incarceration rates, infant mortality, deaths from COVID-19, school test scores and suspension rates, employment, home ownership and so much more,” Leslie Scanlon of the Presbyterian Outlook reported, naming just a few areas where the legacy of the inequality caused by post-Reconstruction racial discrimination continues.
At one year old, Juneteenth is definitely an evolving process. Most people got Juneteenth off, but one half say that they won’t be paid for it. According to Bloomberg: In a survey of 1,030 American workers by job-search database Randstad USA, 43.5% of respondents said they have the day off for Juneteenth — an 11% increase from a year ago. This year, because Juneteenth fell on a Sunday, a number of companies commemorated the day on Monday, June 20. On Wall Street, the day is considered a market holiday starting this year. There is cause for optimism. It is remarkable how much the political landscape can change in just one year. In just one year, from Alabama to San Francisco, ad hoc Juneteenth events cropped up all across the country:
Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre held a weeklong celebration of Juneteenth along the historical Greenwood Avenue. The in-person event included art exhibitions, interactive installations and a celebration of black wellness.
In Michigan, in the Midwest of George Floyd, a road was renamed Black Lives Matter Boulevard to mark the occasion.
The inaugural Juneteenth concert was held at the stage of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, produced by a team of Black creators at Live Nation Urban and Jesse Collins Entertainment. The program included the Debbie Allen Dance Academy; Earth, Wind & Fire; Michelle Williams and The Roots marking the first-ever performance of an all-Black symphony orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl’s 100-year history.
In New York City at The Tribeca Film Festival, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the country, celebrated with documentary selections, influenced by the BLM movement’s role in the making of Juneteenth, including Loudmouth that documents the winding road that is Al Sharpton’s life story as an iconic activist and spiritual leader.
On Sunday, June 19, CNN broadcasted Juneteenth: A Global Celebration for Freedom with anchor Don Lemon and Musical Director Questlove.
VICE and Adidas sponsored a day celebrating black running, promoting health and wellness.
In the digital world, a diaspora-led team of enterprise software engineers, quantitative technologists and analysts, data scientists and subject matter experts launched TheBizio on Juneteenth. TheBizio is the first ecosystem that integrates social media with institutional applications to form a true evidence and performance based portal that brings people and resources together with a unique suite of software to manage and grow their businesses and thereby transform their lives.
Fimi Market Inc. (the name is Jamaican patois for “for me”) launched the First-Ever NFT Marketplace for Women, Black diaspora, Other Underrepresented Artists. In collaboration with the feminist-minded curatorial agency Alice Riot they hosted a “Juneteenth Celebration and NFT Art Gallery Exhibition” at Caelum Gallery in Chelsea, NYC featuring Black artists and their work, both traditional and digital.
The passage of the Juneteenth Bill is not just an American redemption story. it is also a diaspora redemption story. And the story has not ended. While Juneteenth is a national holiday, one year out it is still not a paid holiday in most states. Thirty percent of private employers recognize it as such, according to Axios. Nine states immediately accepted a paid holiday for Juneteenth at the time of the bill’s signing: Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Further, in the year since the bill’s passage, nine states have added Juneteenth as a paid holiday: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota.
Finally, there is still work ahead of us despite the fact that a majority of Americans are now familiar with the holiday. According to the Pew Trust, 26 states have not yet adopted Juneteenth as a paid public holiday, including Confederate states like South Carolina where Confederate Memorial Day on May 10 is a state legal holiday. The evolution continues, but we can take comfort in the fact that the arc of the moral universe is long, but as Martin Luther King reminded us, it bends toward justice.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair