Inside the Movement to Make Juneteenth a Nationally Recognized Holiday

June 19, 2020 at 02:00PM

The first enslaved African people were brought to stolen Indigenous land in August 1619. From that day onward, Black Americans and their allies have fought a relentless battle against white supremacy that included property damage, harrowing freedom escapes, armed rebellions, and more. It’s important that we name this truth: Black people have always been invested in and actively working toward our own liberation.


On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, yet this message wouldn’t make it to Texas until June 19, 1865. Only then were all formerly enslaved Black Americans notified of their freedom. The first Juneteenth celebration was organized in 1866 and has often been commemorated through the building of political power (early events doubled as voting rallies) or pooling resources for land purchases, such as modern-day Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.

It’s essential that we understand the context around Juneteenth and how hard Black Americans have always had to fight for our just due. That even when laws are passed outlawing racist practices, those laws are ignored. That we rise from the ashes, more glorious and more committed to our freedom than we previously thought was possible. That our celebrations are vehicles for chipping away at the project of white supremacy. It’s that legacy of resilience we celebrate, one that should cause the entire country to pause and show reverence.

This year, Bay Area-based collective HellaCreative is working to make sure people across the country do just that. So far they’ve received commitments from some of the biggest industry leaders in the world—including Twitter, Lyft, Buzzfeed, Glossier, and more—to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for all employees. Below, June Johnson, an event curator working with the HELLA JUNETEENTH campaign, explains how the collective aims to create a formally recognized national holiday—and what everyone can do to celebrate and remember.


What was the inspiration behind this campaign?

We are a group of creatives, movers, and shakers that came together thanks to the leadership of Miles Dotson, Brian Watson, and Quinnton Harris. Our ultimate goal is to create something beautiful and reclaim Juneteenth. Very few Americans know about Juneteenth and of the Black Americans who do, many aren’t clear on how to celebrate it. Coming from the South, my family discussed it and saw it as a special day, but we didn’t actually “celebrate” it. With this initiative, we are giving a blueprint on how to unify and have allies honor our tremendous journey. The core demand is to push corporations and brands to acknowledge Juneteenth with a paid day off. We know that the dollar moves most conversations so we know that if visible and influential brands are talking about this, it moves a lot faster.

How do we ensure that the sanctity and intentionality of Juneteenth is protected and that this isn’t just another day off, especially for predominantly white teams?

That’s really critical to us—intention, thought, and impact. The HELLA JUNETEENTH website is a one-stop shop for understanding Juneteenth better, furthering your education around African American history, and deepening commitment with resources such as email templates and Black-owned business lists. So beyond recognizing Juneteenth as a national, paid holiday, we want people to leave empowered to take continued action and share what they’ve learned with others.

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What sort of pushback have you seen since launching and beginning outreach?

Many brands we’ve done outreach to feel the necessity. We set a goal of signing on 100 companies and we met that so quickly that we’ve now bumped our goal up to 500. It’s clear the interest and passion is there. Some of the pushback has been hesitancy or a fear of being inauthentic. Much of the pushback we’ve received is from brands who are apprehensive about getting it wrong and are straddling the fence and waiting for other brands to make the first move. We’re pushing them to understand that in this revolution, there’s no misfiring, and that they can be matching internal efforts to what will happen on Juneteenth.

You are a collective of Bay Area creatives. Considering the Bay was also the founding place of the Black Panther Party, what radical tradition and longterm goals does the campaign have?

The spirit and activism of Oakland that permeates the entire Bay Area absolutely inspires us and has a historical point that we reference. We hope to show up for our community in similar ways as the Black Panther Party, who provided political education, free breakfast programs, and more for their people. HELLA JUNETEENTH is just one of many projects we plan to roll out, all of which are designed to uplift the Black community. Our Instagram has a lot of cool programming going on, such as a conversation about mental health and the Black community with Jason Mayden. We want to create more content on Black joy and ensure that Black people feel seen, heard, and connected.


Brea Baker is racial and gender justice activist working locally and nationally towards the liberation of all oppressed people with an emphasis on black people and women.

Author | Elle
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