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Should more companies observe Juneteenth as a holiday?

CBS News logo CBS News 6/12/2020 Khristopher J. Brooks

Nike, Twitter and Vox Media said employees will get a paid day off to commemorate when slavery ended in the U.S.

The second annual Juneteenth Parade in Philadelphia on June 22, 2019. Juneteenth National Freedom Day commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865. © Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images The second annual Juneteenth Parade in Philadelphia on June 22, 2019. Juneteenth National Freedom Day commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865.

Some prominent U.S. businesses are giving workers June 19 as a paid day off, a gesture to recognize the liberation of slaves during the Civil War.

Twitter, Nike and the NFL announced this week they would observe Juneteenth – the day 155 years ago that African-Americans in Texas learned they were free from slavery. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Tuesday that Juneteenth will be "a day for celebration, education and connection" at the company. Dorsey's other company, mobile payment provider Square, also will make Juneteenth a paid company holiday, he said.

Nike CEO John Donahoe said Thursday that recognizing Juneteenth is an "important opportunity to better commemorate and celebrate Black history and culture." NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to teams Friday announcing the Juneteenth holiday. 

Vox Media and The 19th, a Texas-based non-profit newsroom, also said they're observing Juneteenth. 

More companies should recognize Juneteenth because it's the morally and financially right thing to do, said black history experts who note that 47 states already mark the day as a paid holiday for government workers.

"Observing Juneteenth is an acknowledgement of the stain of slavery and a celebration of Black American freedom," Kevin L. James, dean of North Carolina A&T State University's business college, told CBS MoneyWatch. "Companies that do so will see perception gains among black workers and consumers." 

Although companies may publicly bemoan individual tragedies and pledge support for racial justice, African-American consumers are looking for more than high-minded statements — they want actual actions, he said. 

"Companies observing Juneteenth is a step in that direction," James said. "It will be inadequate alone, but it does say that a company is willing to take a step that aligns with the sentiments of Black America."

Related video: Some American companies respond to racial inequality

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What is Juneteenth?

June 19, 1865, was the day U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to announce the Civil War was over and that slavery had ended. That day, many African-Americans were unaware that Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, six months earlier. 

More than a century later, state governments began commemorating Juneteenth — shorthand for June 19th — as a holiday. Texas was first to do so in 1980. Most states now observe Juneteenth, with the exception of Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

"Juneteenth not only marks the end of slavery in the United States, but it also symbolizes freedom — a freedom that delayed, and brutally resisted; and though decades of progress followed, a freedom for which we continue to fight," Goodell said.

Many African-Americans celebrate Juneteenth with family celebrations. In most cases, extended families gather to eat hamburgers and hot dogs, much like celebrations of the Fourth of July.

For employers, there's a risk that Juneteenth could become like many official holidays — a day off from work that is severed from its deeper meaning, said Learotha Williams Jr., an African American and public history professor at Tennessee State University. But companies can move beyond that if corporate leaders use the day to learn about, for instance, how their organization or industry benefited from slavery.

"These Fortune 500 companies might not be aware of it, or, if they are, they might not want to talk about it," Williams said. 

When is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth this year is next Friday. One city will use the day to a host a virtual festival. Other cities have canceled Juneteenth parades due to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump is scheduled to use the day to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

This year's Juneteenth comes against a backdrop of African-Americans suffering from COVID-19 deaths, massive unemployment from the coronavirus recession and loss of business ownership at a higher rate than whites. Black communities, as well as millions of protesters around the U.S., are also demanding criminal justice reform following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. 

Major consumer brands including Adidas, Apple and Nike have thrown their support behind these efforts.

"When we say that Black Lives Matter, it applies to the world outside of Nike and, importantly, it applies to our Black teammates within Nike," Donahoe said in a memo to employees. "Simply put, we need to hold ourselves to a high standard given the heritage of our company and our brand." 

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