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Juneteenth: The truth will set you free

By John Haynes, Vice President, Human Resources Business Partner

If I left you alone, to unchecked and unaccountable history, and to listening to grapevine talk, you might be inclined to continue believing these myths about Juneteenth:

  • Juneteenth is our oldest celebration of emancipation.
  • Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the United States.
  • Former slaves took Juneteenth across the South.
  • Texas slaves didn't learn they were freed until 1865.
  • African Americans have always celebrated Juneteenth.

However, if I left you alone, the truth about Juneteenth may never find its way to the intersection of your fingertips and your Google searches, and this is our history that I need you to know.

The truth is that Juneteenth marks the day, June 19, 1865, that slavery officially ended in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom to enslaved people in Confederate states on January 1, 1863, following the four-year Civil War. However, it was a full two-and-a-half years before all states were compelled to honor this executive order, effectively freeing the 250,000 people still being held under slavery in Texas.

Below are some additional truths you may not have learned about Juneteenth.

Fact: By the time Major General Gordon Granger issued orders to free enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, slavery had technically been abolished two years earlier by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And Granger's Juneteenth-issued orders applied only to Texas.

Fact: Thanks to the speedy telegraph, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was common knowledge by the time Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. The real reason people were still enslaved when Union troops arrived there was because of local leaders; the Texas Confederate constitution prohibited release from slavery. Lincoln’s orders were only enforced there when federal soldiers finally arrived.

Fact: Slavery didn’t end in states like Kentucky and Delaware – which hadn’t seceded and therefore weren’t covered by Lincoln’s proclamation ­– until December 18, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted.

Fact: The real oldest celebration of the end of slavery started taking place in Gallipolis, Ohio. That celebration was on September 22, 1863, a year after Lincoln signed the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Fact: Emancipation celebrations were commonly observed all around America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And, for the record, the Great Migration – one of the largest migrations of people in U.S. history, when some six million Black people moved from the South to other parts of the country – began in the 1910s, around 50 years after the Civil War ended, and it didn’t involve only Texans.

Fact: Juneteenth celebrations largely died out during the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws enforced racial segregation in the southern United States. Some historians theorize that segregation made the holiday too difficult to observe. But they say the civil rights movement brought national recognition to Juneteenth later. 

The truth of the matter is, I can’t leave you alone to inaccurate history, because I need all of us to be free, and without history’s truth, we simply are not. Knowing the truth about Juneteenth is urgent because what you know influences how we all grow. What you know influences my ability to be free.

An inaccurate and unrepresentative portrayal of history relative to Juneteenth and our enslaved ancestors just perpetuates the miseducation of our children, parents, grandparents, guardians, aunts, and uncles who are responsible for equipping the future with truthtellers and change leaders. In fact, not having the whole story around our country’s history – particularly Juneteenth and the narrative around the history of the enslaved – influences our workplace. We stifle our business, the talent in it, and our customer relationships, particularly with our diverse talent, when we don’t care enough to learn about those with whom we work and serve every day.

However, when we fully take hold of the truth regarding Juneteenth, we think and believe and act differently about people, co-workers, and leaders with whom we work and do business. Access, equality, and equity become culture and ways of the commonplace, and acts of inclusion and belonging become as organic as living and breathing. When we understand the truth about our story and what our Black and African American ancestors endured being enslaved, we better understand our people and their needs. And as we better understand, we can better meet their needs, increase trusting relationships, and create and sustain safe environments.

Here’s one more truth: It was later in my life when I actually learned about Juneteenth and more of the truth of our country’s history was revealed to me. I could’ve felt ashamed and embarrassed about what happened to our people, but I simply cannot be imprisoned by the silence that shame carries. Honestly, I could feel angry that history books and people have perpetuated untruths, and angry about those who’ve never bothered to even question what we’ve been learning for centuries. But staying in this mental state would trap me. This is why real education around Juneteenth and the African American and Black talent who work beside us daily is so crucial.

Further, while it’s not my responsibility to educate you, when asked, when confronted, and when opportunity calls me to the front, I am responsible for making the truth available.

And now that the truth about Juneteenth is available to you, your responsibility is to be available and accessible to receive the truth. The myths are no longer valid or needed. Are you willing to be changed and transformed by the truths now in your possession?

Readers, if I had my way, I wouldn’t want you to feel hoodwinked – then or now – by an incomplete telling of history. The travesty of it all is that our history writers have only told half the story that has everything to do with all of us.

If I had my way, I would want you to be relentless and excited about unlearning the myths of Juneteenth and then diligent about spreading real history and actual truth. Because without the truth about Juneteenth and the truth about the freedom of our people (the Black and African Americans who are your people too), then none of us are truly free. And that’s just not acceptable.

John Haynes is a vice president and human resources business partner at Cardinal Health, where he supports various corporate functions, including finance, legal, regulatory, quality, and the people, services and solutions organization. Haynes has extensive executive human resources experience across multiple industries including industrial, energy, government contracting, and commercial landscaping. He recently joined Cardinal Health from Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he served as the human resources business partner to a group of key executives. Haynes is also a very active volunteer; his leadership positions with nonprofit organizations include directorships on the boards of Junior Achievement of Wisconsin, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Milwaukee, and King’s Academy at Christ The King Baptist Church; vice chair on the board of directors of the Ryan Odelle Mance Memorial Scholarship Foundation, a mentoring program for young black men; and coach with Black44, an affinity group for Black and African American senior executives exiting the Obama administration.