By Tamara Lucas Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
On June 19, 1865, almost two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a notice of the emancipation finally reached Galveston, Texas. Until Union Army General Gordon Granger read the announcement, there was either no knowledge of this event or no recognition of its significance in this outer edge of the U.S. So, it was on June 19th – Juneteenth – that freedom was finally announced to, and embraced by, the last enslaved people in America. Until the early 1900s, this day was marked by major celebrations in black communities across the United States. It was referred to as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day. After the passage of Jim Crow laws, dictating how black people were treated in America, they were afraid to gather for this celebration.
For some reason, this all came to mind in February 2017 when many offices closed for “A Day Without Immigrants.” This was a day in which immigrants and their allies were encouraged not to work to recognize all that immigrants give to the economy and culture of the United States, and to protest deleterious federal immigration policy proposals. The fact that immigrants form a large bedrock of the workforce in America was immediately apparent by their decision not to come to work. That was at the crux of this recognition for me. It was about money.
To my knowledge, there is no such day that recognizes all that African-Americans give and have given to this country. I suspect that some might suggest that the federal holiday in recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. is such a day. Maybe, but that holiday feels more like a recognition of the leadership of one phenomenal person, not a recognition of the economic and cultural contributions of a people. Juneteenth came to mind as the closest, symbolically, to being a day for this type of recognition. It acknowledges the pivotal role of enslaved people in undergirding the economic health of this fledgling country and the ongoing role that black Americans have played in building America’s wealth – literally and figuratively. It recognizes the cultural influence of Africa and subsequently of African-Americans in shaping this country.
So, am I suggesting that all black Americans not work on June 19, 2018? No, I don’t believe we are organized enough – YET — to have a visible impact. Today, I am simply urging everyone to stop and think about the wealth that was created by the free labor of black enslaved people, the profits that were made by black people being underpaid in Jim Crow America, the racial wealth divide that had its roots – and continues – in inequitable treatment. Perhaps this post will plant a seed and by 2019, our community – philanthropy and beyond – will know what Juneteenth is, how slavery impacted the viability of this country, and will want to acknowledge this reality. Perhaps on June 19, 2019, black people will not go to work and others will close their doors in support. Together we can make this happen. This year, on June 19th, let’s start by having a pause, a moment of silence, in recognition of what African-Americans have given (willingly and unwillingly) to this country.