What is Juneteenth?

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Q:  I just found out my company celebrates Juneteenth.  This is a new holiday for me.  Can you help me understand it?  I am hearing a lot about it, but not sure of the origins and why it is now a holiday.

A:  Juneteenth lands on Sunday, June 19th this year.  Most employers celebrate it on Monday, June 20th, as it is a federal holiday.  When any federal holiday lands on a Sunday, the “day off” is the Monday after the Sunday.

Many Black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth for years.  Federal offices, banks, employers and schools are closed to celebrate the holiday.  The day commemorates the end of enslavement of Black Americans, and is seen by many as the first step of a long struggle of civil rights.  The roots of the holiday mark the day back in 1865 when slavery ended in the US, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Ninety-five-year-old Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” spent five plus years lobbying for federal recognition of Juneteenth.  Lee led walks, collected signatures and eventually was invited to the White House.  In 2016, Lee, a retired teacher, walked over 1300 miles to Washington DC, from her home state of Texas, to advocate for the federal holiday.  When Lee was a child in Fort Worth, Texas, an angry mob of white supremacists torched Lee’s home, requiring her family to flee the home.

In 2021, Juneteenth was designated as a federal holiday. Cities and towns, across the US, celebrate the holiday with community gatherings, food festivals, prayer breakfasts, barbecues and street fairs.  On Saturday, June 18th, many residents of Ashland, and surrounding communities, celebrated Juneteenth.  Ashland Residents for Equity and Action (AREA) was one of the sponsors of the event. Alan Galiwango, a board member of AREA, spoke at this celebration and explained that “Juneteenth is an opportunity for us to catch our breath, to heal, hope and emerge from the most painful bitter version of ourselves, to make a better version of ourselves.  Live music, dance, food and kid-friendly activities were the focus of the celebration.

Juneteenth is now a well-recognized holiday across the US.  It is an important day for many of us to reflect on our history as a country.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.