• Juneteenth marks the unofficial end to slavery in America. It is a day of celebration and remembrance across the country.
  • 47 states, the District of Columbia and a number of private companies have declared the day a holiday.
  • Recent protests have raised awareness of racial inequality in society.

For more than a century and a half, annual celebrations have been held across the United States on 19 June to commemorate the end of slavery, a date known as Juneteenth Independence Day.

Normally a time of feasts, parades and backyard cookouts, this year’s celebrations could be more subdued, or held virtually, in light of the need for social distancing in response to the pandemic.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially outlawed slavery in America on 1 January 1863, but it took a further two and a half years of civil war for slaves to finally gain their freedom.

A step back in time

The original Juneteenth – a portmanteau of the words June and 19th – celebration took place in Galveston, Texas, in 1865.

As Union forces overwhelmed the Confederate army, southern slave-owning states like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana fell. But many southern planters were reluctant to liberate their slaves and resisted the Union’s advance, with some making agreements to release their captive labour after the crop harvest and others fleeing west to then-lawless Texas, taking their slaves with them.

Following the surrender of Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee, with many slaves still unaware of their legal right to freedom, Union soldiers visited plantations to help liberate the remaining captives.

Juneteenth marks the day that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to spread the word that the war was over and emancipate the last of those enslaved in Texas. Although the state’s slaves were not the last to be liberated in the country.

Border states still in the Union at that time were exempt from the emancipation order, leaving enslaved people to endure a further six months of forced servitude until slavery was formerly abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the constitution on 18 December 1865.

Many African Americans remained bonded to plantation owners as tenant farmers, or sharecroppers, long after slavery was abolished however. Despite being legally free, for many ex-slaves leaving their former plantation could be a dangerous venture.

The Emancipation Proclamation is displayed at the National Archives building in Washington, January 13, 2006. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War, formally proclaiming the freedom of all slaves held in areas still in revolt. This original document is displayed for public during four days once a year. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas - RP3DSFDJMCAA
The Emancipation Proclamation is on display at the National Archive Building in Washington.
Image: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Celebrate and remember

The celebrations that followed the events in Galveston laid the foundations of today’s annual festivities marking the end of slavery, which were carried across America as liberated slaves migrated. Juneteenth is both a day of celebration and a day of remembrance for the suffering borne of the slave era.

From private family events to large commemorative parades, that day in Texas is marked across the US, emulating many of the traditions started by the newly freed slaves, such as readings of Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation, sharing cuisines specific to African Americans and holding religious services.

Texas declared Juneteenth a statewide holiday in 1980, setting a precedent for 46 other states and the District of Columbia to follow.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the "new normal" and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

This year, Juneteenth celebrations come as a wave of protests sweep America in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which have refocused attention on racial inequalities that still persist more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery.

Companies including Twitter, Nike and the NFL have declared Juneteenth a paid holiday, but as yet the day has not been declared a federal holiday.

Happy Juneteenth.