Juneteenth, Black Wall Street, and Honoring Complicated History

A few weeks ago – May 31 and June 1 – brought the centennial of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the worst single incidents of racial violence in American history. Mobs of White residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma – at the time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street”. The attacks received little attention in newspapers and were actively covered up by the (White) authorities for more than fifty years. Most residents of Tulsa – both Black and White – had no awareness of this horrific part of the city’s history even in recent years. This was highlighted when the event was depicted in the HBO series Watchmen and many viewers assumed it was fiction, causing the show’s creators to speak out to bring more public attention to the historical event.

Meanwhile, this weekend brings the celebration of Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865 – two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was delivered – Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Juneteenth is an observed holiday in 47 states and Washington D.C., but is is not (yet) a mandated federal holiday.

Whether or not your workplace holds any annual recognition of Juneteenth (which this year falls on a weekend) or acknowledged the centennial of the Tulsa massacre, this is a good chance to consider how to honor emotionally-complicated history in your teams and organizations. So how can you do this this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Create space for meaningful interactions with the historical context in which we live:

  1. Plan ahead. This email is coming out only a few days before Juneteenth, and a few weeks after the Tulsa centennial. But anniversaries of local and national historical events with a focus on marginalization take place throughout the year. With a team, take some time to research holidays and events to commemorate in some way. Include as wide a range of input as you are able, and consider a way for people to make suggestions anonymously if desired.
  2. Center the voices of members of groups for whom an event is particularly meaningful. This might include Employee Resource Groups, surveys, or other information-gathering resources. What members of that group might want from a commemoration might be very different than you might imagine. Some events may warrant a celebration, while for others a time to learn, listen, and understand may be more appropriate.
  3. Find out what you can do to contribute. If you are able to provide resources, be clear about what you can provide. Perhaps this is funding from your department’s budget, or perhaps it is time during the workday to work on preparing an event. Perhaps you have the resources to bring in a speaker or other resources for staff to engage with around the topic. Maybe your contribution might be more personal – separate from your team, you might take part in a local community event connected to the focus, such as one of the hundreds of Juneteenth celebrations taking place in-person and online across the US this week.
  4. If you are in a position of authority, consider which events might warrant a paid day off for employees. A growing number of organizations are recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for staff. Consider if this is an option for your organization, and/or if other days would be appropriate for your organization or team.

We’d love to know how this goes for you; contact us or post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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