JUNETEENTH AND MLA: WHAT CAN WE LEARN?

Written by MLARI Researcher, Karen Linkletter

Juneteenth-2.jpgJune 19th marks the celebration of Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day. This important date also presents an opportunity for practitioners and students of Management as a Liberal Art (MLA) to learn some useful lessons about the power of information, moral decision making, the importance of historical awareness, and the challenges of effecting meaningful change.

History of Juneteenth

June 19, 1865 is the date that the last remaining slaves in America were finally freed after the end of the Civil War. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, The Emancipation Proclamation declared that slaves in the rebelling states were free and would be emancipated officially on January 1st, 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation is celebrated as a seminal moment in American history, but it did not instantly emancipate slaves. Slave states that remained loyal to the Union were unaffected, and as more states came under Union control in the latter years of the war, slaves fled in large numbers to seek refuge behind Union lines. General Ulysses S. Grant actively promoted the training and arming of Black soldiers in his Union forces to cope with the massive numbers of runaway slaves.

Texas was a rather isolated outpost during the Civil War. There were no significant battles fought there, nor were Union troops deployed to combat any rebellions. As a result, Texas became a safe haven for slave owners from other states seeking a place to hide their “property” as slavery became illegal after the Emancipation Proclamation. Texas’s diverse economy, from cotton to shipping to construction, made it reliant on labor. And slavery was the labor of choice for these highly varied sectors of the economy. Texas slaves remained enslaved in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the courthouse at Appomattox, Virginia. As the Union began to send authorities out to establish control of former rebel areas, those officers learned that Texas represented a unique situation. Major General Gordon Granger, along with 1800 soldiers, was assigned to the District of Texas, and issued General Order Number 3 in Galveston on June 19, 1965. Granger’s order stated that “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Why did it take so long for Texas to receive news about the Emancipation Proclamation? Historians have several theories about this. One is that the messenger who bore the news was killed, preventing the message from being received (this was an era where information was transmitted in person, not by any electronic or other means). Another is that the news was received, but the Texas authorities decided to ignore it. This seems more likely, given the response to Granger’s order. Plantation owners in Texas had to decide if and when they would announce the news from cosmopolitan Galveston. Many plantation owners waited until after the cotton harvest to tell slaves they were free, so that they could eke out one more crop. Slaves who tried to leave were often lynched. Susan Merritt, a former slave, said that black people were shot and hung from trees as they tried to swim to safety. Regardless, Juneteenth became a celebration day for Black Texans in 1866.

Juneteenth after the Civil War

Juneteenth had rivals for a Black Emancipation Day. Frederick Douglass campaigned for January 1st to be Emancipation Day, as it was the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. He led massive celebrations to mark Black independence.  On the 20th anniversary in 1883, African Americans gathered in Washington D.C. to celebrate their freedom and Douglass’s efforts. But the date was overshadowed by the truth of history: The Emancipation Proclamation did not, in fact, free all slaves. In Texas, Juneteenth became a cultural celebration of reunion for families separated by slavery, incorporating traditions of slave food (the barbecue pit), readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and religious sermons. Racial pride and cultural identity became an important aspect of Juneteenth.

Of course, the end of the Civil War did not bring true emancipation for Black Americans. The realities of Jim Crow laws, which allowed separate facilities for black and white people, resulted in unlivable conditions for Black people in the South. As the Northern economy recovered from the war, job opportunities opened up, and more and more Black Americans moved to seek work, as well as to flee from the terrors of Jim Crow life. The Great Black Migration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century created enormous economic, cultural, and racial repercussions in the United States. One impact was the spread of Juneteenth outside of Texas. Blacks took this tradition with them, and made it an American holiday, not just a Texan one.

However, the cruelties of racism made Juneteenth celebrations a target for white Americans to focus on.  More wealthy Black citizens began to dress up for Juneteenth celebrations, particularly in the northern cities. This display of wealth angered northern whites, fueling racial tensions that flared in the 1910s and 1920s. The early twentieth century was the heyday of eugenics, the belief in the scientific inferiority of darker-skinned people, so celebrations of freedom and opportunity seemed futile in a world where Black people were lynched or killed in riots regularly. The idea of equality or freedom for Blacks seemed a dim possibility, and Juneteenth celebrations began to fade. However, the death of Dr. Martin Luther King revived the Juneteenth celebration. After King’s assassination, SCLC head Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day in 1968, which revitalized the holiday.  In 1979, Texas declared Juneteenth a State holiday. Since then, 47 of the 50 states observe Juneteenth as a holiday or special day of observance.

Juneteenth today

Juneteenth has taken on more meaning in popular culture in recent years. An early documentary, A Time to be Remembered (A Juneteenth Story) (1997) traces the history of slavery with some references to the holiday. There Is a new documentary that will be available to the public on June 19th this year. Miss Juneteenth premiered at the Sundance Festival and won an award at SXSW in March this year. Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, the film documents Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, including a beauty pageant. As the following link shows, contemporary Juneteenth celebrations include parades, barbecues, gatherings, but also opportunities to teach about race relations. The holiday has transformed as our society has:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJKzdksodNY

Takeaways from Juneteenth

·        Information is power. Withholding information can have dramatic consequences. Texas slaves remained in bondage for over two years longer than they should have. Even if information traveled slowly, there was clearly a problem with communication in Texas, deliberate or otherwise. In today’s twenty-first century, information can be transmitted immediately. But such instant communication presents almost unlimited opportunities for miscommunication and/or withholding information. Management as a Liberal Art (MLA) requires those with authority to communicate information responsibly and fairly. And today’s more transparent world means that those who do not will be even more accountable.

·        The purely economic decision isn’t always right or moral. So many industries in Texas relied on slave labor that, even after Granger’s order was given, some planters decided to conceal the truth until the end of the cotton harvest. In many ways, the entire system of chattel slavery was based on an economic decision driven by the desire for cheap labor. In our post-COVID world, disrupted supply chains and worker health are forcing a reevaluation of entire industries. An economic decision to design meat processing for cost effectiveness, with workers standing shoulder to shoulder, is not ethically feasible in the current climate. MLA mandates that decisions involve a consideration of how those decisions will affect people, including employees.

·        Knowledge of history matters. Historical events hold cultural meaning, and some events are more meaningful to some cultures than others. An awareness of history allows leaders to be sensitive to why decisions need to consider cultural perspectives and collective memory. President Trump scheduled a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19th this year. Tulsa was the site of one of America’s worst race massacres, when in 1921, white mobs burned black residences and businesses, destroying an entire community. The convergence of Trump’s rally location with Juneteenth brought public outcry, leading the President to move the event one day later.

·        Meaningful change comes slowly and with enormous resistance. Juneteenth is a small example of the long history of racism Black Americans have faced and are still facing. The backlash against displays of Black celebration, the persistence of Black Americans to use Juneteenth as a day to mark freedom, and the transformation of the holiday to teach as well as celebrate, show how change comes slowly and usually faces strong resistance. MLA helps leaders recognize that, in times of great change, deeply held beliefs can make change seem threatening. Persistence, flexibility, and timing work in favor of change. The history of Black Americans, including their celebration of Juneteenth, illustrates these qualities.

 

If Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of an immoral system, a celebration of freedom, it should be everyone’s celebration.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “What is Juneteenth?”, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/

Donald Moore, “What to Know About Juneteenth,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2020

“The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth”, The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth​​

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