Juneteenth: Reflecting on our History

by Valoria Armstrong

Juneteenth is a monumental day in American history. As we celebrate freedom, we must also take time to understand our history and reflect on the progress we still need to achieve.

For me, that means honoring and continuing to learn from my experiences growing up in the rural south of Swainsboro, Georgia, with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and so many more family members. It also means embracing my heritage and understanding where my ancestors came from, what they endured and persevered, and how this all impacted my life’s journey and passion of building equitable cultures.

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and freed the last remaining 250,000 enslaved African Americans. It took two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation for the information to reach the people of Galveston. Slavery in America was ultimately abolished when the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

Juneteenth Flag
Juneteenth Flag

The Juneteenth flag [pictured above], serves as reminder of the day and is filled with symbolism of the end of slavery in America. While slavery forever impacted our society in America, the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation heralded opportunity. We soon had African American trailblazers in many aspects of our culture, from medical pioneers to educators to artists in every genre. 

These forefathers and mothers gave rise to civil rights revolutionaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., barrier-breaking athletes such as Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, judicial leaders like Thurgood Marshall, and great authors and poets such as Alex Haley and Maya Angelou.

These and thousands of other African Americans paved the way for today's leaders, including myself. Because of their courage, perseverance, and tireless pursuit of justice and commitment to building an equitable culture for generations to follow, we have experienced the leadership of Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. President; Kamala Harris, the first Black and first Asian American U.S. Vice President; and Ursula Burns, former Xerox CEO, and the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. I strive for the day when we don’t have a need to celebrate the firsts of African Americans and their impacts are engrained in the fabric of our nation.

These roots have established a firm foundation on which I now have the privilege to stand as the Chief Global Inclusion & Diversity Officer at Unum Group.

I am proud to lead our inclusion and diversity (I&D) strategy as we continue to build on the shared beliefs of creating an equitable culture where every employee has equal and fair access to opportunities and resources. Part of this work includes disrupting personal and systemic biases while also understanding how accidental exclusion can cause harm and hinder our good intentions. We know that every employee’s unique perspective, experience and background equips us to better serve our customers, our communities, and each other. To ensure our diversity of thought, we must be an inclusive workforce dedicated to our communities and customers. 

As we honor Juneteenth, let’s take a moment to reflect and learn about what the day means and hear from two of our colleagues on how they commemorate.    

Denise Talley
Denise Talley
Denise Talley, Director, VB Underwriting, Co-Lead UNITEd Employee Network

For several years, I attended Juneteenth events, but I sheepishly admit that I wasn’t aware of the true meaning. It wasn’t until a few years back that I had an experience that awakened me to the fact that racism is alive and thriving. It was that day that I became acutely aware of race relations in the U.S., and the importance of not only Juneteenth, but also other pivotal events in African American history.

I made a conscious decision to get involved in driving change in my surroundings, in my community, and in my job. I began to volunteer again, and I joined the employee network at work. I began to study more about our history for my edification and to educate my children. I strive to embody the meaning of Juneteenth in various aspects of my life. Over the last few years, I’ve made it a point to have intentional, meaningful conversations with my children about past and present events that involve our people. Not with the goal of disparaging our history or country, but to remind us that it wasn’t that long ago that some of our family members attended segregated schools and were not allowed to vote. I want my children to truly understand the price that others paid so that we could have the opportunity of a better way of life.  

It’s important to remember that Juneteenth is a celebration – a celebration of freedom and the joyful recognition of the perseverance and spirit of Black people in this nation. We shouldn’t take freedom for granted, we should use that freedom to better ourselves, better our communities and others. It’s also a reminder that your freedom will not be handed to you: you must fight for it. And while the fight was started by others many years ago, the journey continues. 

"It’s important to remember that Juneteenth is a celebration – a celebration of freedom and the joyful recognition of the perseverance and spirit of Black people in this nation."

Denise Talley | Director, VB Underwriting

Michael Brown
Michael Brown
Michael Brown, Sr. Talent Acquisition Consultant, Support Partner bePROUD Employee Network

For me, Juneteenth signifies the value of education and the influence of knowledge. It emphasizes the value of historical comprehension and the requirement to face the more unsettling portions of our past. It motivates me to continue learning, look for the truth, and magnify the voices of those who have been silenced historically. I'm also compelled by Juneteenth to think back on the ongoing fight for racial justice and the work that needs to be done to end institutionalized discrimination. To commemorate the holiday, I'll be spending time with those that are dear to me. We'll be having a barbeque with tasty food and enjoyable music. For the African American community, Juneteenth is a day of celebration. We will continue to celebrate every small win and every big win in the fight for equality while remembering those before us. 

"For the African American community, Juneteenth is a day of celebration. We will continue to celebrate every small win and every big win in the fight for equality while remembering those before us."

Michael Brown | Senior Talent Acquisition Consultant

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About Unum Group

Unum Group (NYSE: UNM), an international provider of workplace benefits and services, has been helping workers and their families for 175 years. Through its Unum and Colonial Life brands, the company offers disability, life, accident, critical illness, dental, vision and stop-loss insurance; leave and absence management support and behavioral health services. In 2022, Unum reported revenues of about $12 billion and paid $8 billion in benefits. The Fortune 500 company is one of the 2023 World’s Most Ethical Companies, recognized by Ethisphere®. 

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