Holiday commemorating the end of slavery is cause for celebration but also a reflection on how to make further progress on diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging.
About two years ago, a family vacation took Sheila Williams through Galveston, Texas, the birthplace of Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, celebrated on June 19.
“I had been aware of Juneteenth for some time,” said Williams, an Underwriting Regulation Analyst at Zurich North America, “but I hadn’t realized that Galveston was the place where a group of enslaved people finally learned that they had been freed from the atrocities of slavery.”
That announcement was delivered by federal troops on June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The news had reached Texas earlier, but local enslaved people were not informed. Even today, many Americans don’t know the history behind Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, which is widely regarded as the end of slavery in the United States.
The Zurich African Ancestry Alliance (ZAAA), an employee resource group (ERG), wants to increase awareness of Juneteenth and Black history. ZAAA is hosting an event for colleagues later this month that will celebrate Black culture. It’s one of many programs that Zurich’s nine ERGs offer their colleagues throughout the year to foster diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging (DIEB). The ZAAA event at the end of June will include a panel discussion featuring Zurich employees in conversation with Dr. Lionel Kimble, an Associate Professor of History at Chicago State University, as well as musical performances by local artists.
Juneteenth not taught in school
“I learned about the history of Juneteenth much later in my adult years due to the fact that it wasn’t widely celebrated across the country nor was it taught in school,” said Krishna Lynch, ZAAA president and a Regional Manager with Zurich Resilience Solutions.
Now she celebrates Juneteenth every year. This time, she and her family plan to attend the Juneteenth BBQ & Block Party, presented by Chance the Rapper and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago.
“Celebrations of Juneteenth are intended to be expressed with great joy — not avoiding or ignoring many concerns of the present but acknowledging the constant drive for freedom,” Lynch said. “I appreciate what Juneteenth symbolizes for me and my children - individual freedom. Moreover, there are lessons to glean about the importance of truth and transparency in carrying forward the work of DEI.”
Sean Penermon, a Construction Underwriter in Zurich’s South Region, said he has associated Juneteenth with joy from the first time he learned of it during a road trip from St. Louis to Dallas to celebrate his college graduation with a friend.
“On the day we were leaving to go back to St. Louis we ran into a large group of young black folks staying in the same hotel,” Penermon said. “We asked them why they were all at the hotel and they told us about a free Juneteenth concert — Bell Biv DeVoe was headlining,” Penermon remembers with a smile. “So we decided to stay an extra day. While at the concert people told us about the significance of Juneteenth. On the way back to St. Louis I was so impressed with the joy that I saw on the faces of all the people at the Juneteenth concert that I told my friend I was going to move to Dallas — and I did so four years later.”
Years later, Penermon is celebrating Juneteenth by participating in a bike ride organized by a group of African American cyclists called Soul Patrol in Frisco, Texas. It will kick off with a prayer and reading of the history and meaning of Juneteenth. Penermon is riding the 53-mile route then meeting family and friends at the finish line for the picnic and “old-school” R&B music.
“For me Juneteenth symbolizes the history of African Americans since the time we set foot on this continent,” Penermon said. “We know holding back the knowledge of our emancipation for approximately two years was meant to hold us back, but it does not matter; we moved forward and found a way to bring joy to that moment.”
‘The start of our freedom journey’
Kelly Lewis, Director of Cyber Risk Services and a ZAAA member, said she is participating in a local Juneteenth parade, then hosting a small party with friends on Saturday evening, in honor of Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth was the start of our freedom journey. While I don’t dare think that we were really ‘free’ then and now, to be honest, I do believe that this was the first step in nationally recognizing our people as actual people and acknowledgement of the end of forced slavery.
“It makes me sad that it’s been over 150 years and so much history is not only unknown, but I feel like others want to change the narrative,” Lewis said. “I am extremely proud of us as a people, though. We as a people started with nothing, literally, and while progress has been slow, the determination and resilience of us is phenomenal. At Zurich specifically, I definitely see more people of color than when I started almost 10 years ago. I appreciate the ERGs and the investment that Zurich makes in teaching and allowing for the open dialogue with measurable actions to bridge the gap in representation.”
Learning something new every year
Brad Craner, U.S. National Accounts Strategic Operations Leader and Co-Chair of the National Membership Committee for ZAAA, said he has learned more about Juneteenth each year from colleagues. And he wants to continue to do so.
“It’s such an important part of U.S. history, and I don’t think there is enough awareness around it,” Craner said. “So I try to learn something new about it each year.”
Diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging is no longer a topic that any organization can ignore, he said.
“It’s something employees now consider when working somewhere,” he said, “and as this continues to evolve those organizations, their employees and communities will be better for it.”
‘We still must fight on’
Juneteenth resonates more deeply for Williams, also a ZAAA member, since her trip to Galveston.
“Juneteenth serves as a reminder that we’ve come so far, and yet we have so much further to go,” Williams said. “It’s a reminder that though we’ve won some battles, we still must fight on until we are truly, truly free.”