For the 200+ attendees at a Juneteenth event hosted by Walgreens African American Leadership business resource group (AAL BRG), it was a resonant question.
June 19 holds significance in American history as the day commemorating the liberation of the final enslaved African American in Texas in 1865. On Juneteenth, as it’s now known, more than 250,000 African Americans were emancipated through executive decree after states were slow or unwilling to adopt the ruling of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Though it’s a momentous day in history, many Americans, including Black Americans, were not aware of Juneteenth until recently.
Carol G. Johnson, a speaker at the BRG event and co-chair of The 1865 Coalition, did not learn about Juneteenth until she was in her 50s.
Conversely, a team member from Texas who was attending the event virtually said she had been celebrating Juneteenth for 20 years in her Southern home. Both agreed that it wasn’t until Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday in June 2021 that it became more common knowledge and a more widely celebrated occasion for the Black community.
As such, Johnson named The 1865 Coalition for the year all slaves were truly freed so the date would imprint itself on peoples’ minds. Johnson, also known as Ms. J, is a lifelong Chicago resident and activist who spearheads The Coalition, raising awareness about the importance of Black culture and Chicago’s West Side.
When asked what Juneteenth means to her, Johnson’s answer was immediate: “Family and passing history down to the next generation.”
Johnson spoke to the BRG about why she’s made it her mission to not only preserve Chicago history, but also connect with young people to pass down knowledge.
“Being Black is an experience,” remarked Johnson. “When we speak the truth about it, people can learn. A lot of people don’t know the Black Panthers came from the West Side of Chicago. Also Twista,” the crowd laughed, but her point had been made.
“Y’all didn’t know that! That’s why we have to pass down the history.”
“Just reach out and say hello. Start a block club. Throw an event. Watch it grow, spread it to the next block. Talk to a young person. Hear what they have to say. Talk to their parents. Learn about their relationship. Kids are a reflection of what goes on at home. Maybe the parents need support. Find out how you can do that. An ally is anyone who will come to the table and participate.”
After Johnson’s speech, the BRG celebrated with barbecue, music and games, hosted by Dwight Washington Jr., chair of the AAL BRG, and Stefanie Hicks, senior manager, diversity equity and inclusion.
One attendee summed up his thoughts on Johnson’s contributions to the community beautifully: “Ms. J, thank you for your wisdom. Because the wisdom is heavy.”
For more on what Juneteenth means to Washington Jr. and Hicks, watch their reflections in the below video.