Akele Parnell has been celebrating Juneteenth for many years, but this Friday will be the first time he officially has the day off from work.
“Even as an African American from Birmingham, Alabama, it wasn’t something that was just widely celebrated as I was growing up,” said Parnell, an attorney working at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “So even in many African American communities, it’s not as widely celebrated. I think that will change from here on out.”
Parnell’s organization, a small team of mission-oriented attorneys, is part of a growing number of workplaces to mark Juneteenth as a paid holiday for the first time this year. In the Chicago area, the trend includes locally-headquartered giants, such as biotechnology AbbVie and insurance company Allstate, as well as small retailers and nonprofits.
“We think it’s wonderful. We think it’s past time,” said Mary Morten, president of Morten Group, a national consulting firm based in Chicago that works with clients on issues around racial equity, diversity, inclusion and executive placements. “I think this is a way that employers are trying to say to their black staff, ‘We stand with you. We support you. We hear you.’ ”
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that Union soldiers went to Galveston, Texas, to tell slaves that the Confederacy had lost the Civil War and that they had been freed. This was nearly two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect. The holiday has gained greater attention in recent weeks after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited widespread protests against police brutality and other forms of continued oppression of black Americans.
Morten said making Juneteenth as a paid holiday shows that an employer is willing to go beyond issuing a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But she cautions that the work cannot end there. Morten said employers still need to bring their teams together to discuss the reality of race and equity in their workplaces and redress issues.
“We are at a place in the country where people want actions, not platitudes,” she said.
For some people who will now have the day off for the first time, it’s also a moment to reflect on their role in promoting justice and equality.
“We think it should be a time to educate ourselves with black history, honor those lost to enslavement in the United States and take time to think about how we can be stronger allies and create changes in our platform and place within our community,” said Ray Zupp, art and marketing director at Foursided, a gift store and framing shop with four locations on Chicago’s North Side that is giving its 20 employees the day off.
In addition to using the day to read further on black history, Zupp said he and other employees will donate their day’s pay to black-led organizations. He added that the company has also signed the 15 Percent Pledge, a national movement to encourage retailers to devote at least 15% of their shelf space to products from black-owned businesses.
Chicago Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward, said the movement of private-sector companies observing Juneteenth is giving her hope that the City of Chicago might follow suit. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution Wednesday to celebrate Juneteenth every year. However, an ordinance Hadden introduced last November — and co-sponsored by 40 other aldermen — to make the day an official city holiday is languishing in committee.
For Parnell, a component of Juneteenth has always been reading and reflection on the legacy of slavery and the struggle for black liberation. He said he hopes those who are new to observing Juneteenth will take time to do the same.
“I wouldn’t want this to be just another day off work,” he said. “I think it really should center on the struggle for black liberation and how that’s ongoing.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter with WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.