I’m ashamed to admit that until a few years ago, I didn’t know what Juneteenth was, never mind what it represented to the Black community.
The date, June 19, now a federal holiday after legislation sailed through Congress earlier this week and was signed by President Joe Biden on Thursday, marked the end of slavery in Texas in 1865. On that day, a Union general rode into one of the most remote parts of the South and pronounced the Civil War was over and all slaves were free.
That was more than two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and more than two months after the South’s actual surrender. Even after that landmark declaration in Galveston, Texas, slaves were still held in some parts of the country until later that year, when the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery.
Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, but it’s also a reminder that Black people have systemically had it more difficult—be it the slow, painful abolishment of slavery; the protracted battle for equal rights; or the social justice movement that reached a crescendo with Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd in police custody last year.
I am a middle-aged White man, and I know these things now, but the Black community has celebrated Juneteenth since the 1800s. What’s taken me, and people who look like me and have upbringings like mine, so long to recognize its significance? It was never taught to me in school, never brought up in my group of friends or family, and I never explored it myself until recently. It was Biden’s visit to Tulsa, Okla., this spring that opened my eyes fully to the institutional struggle of Black Americans.
I don’t like to use the expression “tone from the top,” partly because of the forced alliteration but also because it advances the hyperbolic notion that leaders can influence those they oversee as easily as a shepherd herds sheep. I might not prefer that particular phrase, but the idea behind it rings as true as ever.
Biden gave a moving speech on June 1, marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. As I listened to him talk, I noted not only the straightforward, honest description of what happened, but also that this was yet another significant attack on Black Americans with which I was unfamiliar.
“One hundred years ago, a violent white supremacist mob raided, firebombed, and destroyed approximately 35 square blocks of the thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Biden explained. “Families and children were murdered in cold blood. Homes, businesses, and churches were burned. In all, as many as 300 Black Americans were killed, and nearly 10,000 were left destitute and homeless.”
There I was, jaw to the ground, Googling “Tulsa Race Massacre” and discovering not only the depth of the atrocities committed against that community but also learning for the first time of the many similarly horrific massacres in Black communities that took place between the 1870s and 1920s.
I realize it’s not an accident that we weren’t taught these aspects of our history; it’s simply another aspect of systemic racism. We need to start teaching our kids a more honest narrative of how we got where we are, so that coming generations of adults won’t be learning this stuff in their mid-40s.
We also need to do our part, today, in the corporate sphere to dismantle unfair systems and stop romanticizing history. Leaders can influence change in a number of ways. Consider the following:
- The most powerful person in America visited the site of a race massacre to acknowledge the shame of it.
- Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday by America’s most powerful governing body, a surprising move that will influence perception and educate those who, like me, only in recent times became aware of it.
- The CEO of Walmart, a man who 2.3 million people call “boss,” last October acknowledged “the magnitude of the racism that exists in our country” and called on his fellow corporate leaders (specifically, more than 200 of the largest companies in the United States) to “do more” to help people of color and to create and disclose diversity metrics to be measured against. That kind of accountability drives change.
So, yes, our leaders’ words and actions carry weight, and not in the sheep-following-the-shepherd kind of way. When powerful people acknowledge difficult truths, demonstrate empathy, or attempt to right decades of inequality perpetrated by their predecessors, those in their care take particular note because these leaders are demonstrating a vulnerability that makes them a lot like the rest of us—imperfect.