This year marks the first time Juneteenth is a federally recognized holiday. Yet until recently, it wasn’t something that was widely celebrated in the U.S.
For Black Americans, however, Juneteenth — a celebration commemorating the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, which ensured the liberation of enslaved people there under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation — is a date on par with the Fourth of July.
In the last year, hundreds of companies and thousands of citizens embraced Juneteenth for the first time, following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer amid the months-long protests and online activism that erupted in its aftermath. Thanks to a group of creatives who latched onto the momentum and launched a clever, well-timed social media campaign, millions of people globally have become motivated to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, and are telling their legislators to do the same.
Growing up in Houston, Miles Dotson, a “creative technologist” and entrepreneur, celebrated Juneteenth with his family every year, but for the longest time, he thought it was only a regional event.
“It just seemed like a Texas thing,” he said. “While I was in college, I would travel to all these other places around Juneteenth and noticed it was kind of acknowledged and respected but not necessarily a big deal.”
That all changed in 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, Dotson and his colleagues worried that the community of creatives they had built would be dramatically impacted. So they created a Slack channel, branded themselves, and invited friends across expertise and industries into “one ecosystem,” he said.
HellaCreative, a collective of Bay Area-based artists, content creators, designers, and developers, held weekly happy hours and hosted discussion boards where people could collaborate and connect, albeit not in person.
After news of Floyd’s death last May, the group was devastated. The video spread quickly online, and was “visually devastating” to watch, said Dotson. Yet, HellaCreative still made it a point to come together for that week’s happy hour to “hold space” and discuss what comes next.
“In the past years with Black Lives Matter and a whole bunch of other movements that are broadly expressive around Blackness and just a spirit of liberation and moving the culture forward, we had a conversation about doing something for Juneteenth,” he said.
It was in that virtual meeting where the hashtag and corresponding campaign for #HellaJuneteenth came about. The group’s sleek and shareable logo (with matching graphics), which was created by Quinnton Harris, made the campaign bound for virality.
Dotson and the HellaCreative team launched the #HellaJuneteenth landing page, filled with testimonials, educational resources, and opportunities to email local and state representatives, on Friday, June 5, 2020 — 11 days after Floyd’s death.
The response was immediate.
By the time the following Monday rolled around, tech executives including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey promoted the website as a resource for followers to find out about Juneteenth. Before 2020, many non-Black Americans knew very little about the holiday.
“It was like a fire hose,” Dotson said. “We didn’t really have time to consciously think about what was happening, we were just very responsive in riding the wave, staying up late nights until three or four in the morning to make updates to the site.”
Within five days of launch, over 600 companies, like VSCO, Adobe, Lyft, Spotify, and Netflix, signed up to take the pledge to recognize Juneteenth as a paid, corporate holiday for their employees.
As of today, the digital reach of the #HellaJuneteenth campaign has a total of over 300 million unique impressions (the number of times that content has been viewed).
“When we started putting this together, we wanted people to really care about this holiday and to help our friends in corporate America be able to request that day off,” Dotson said. “We wanted to provide a positive opposition to the devastation we felt.”
Momentum for online social justice campaigns has since slowed, but Dotson believes it’s natural. The push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday has been decades in the making. Currently, 47 states recognize it, but only Texas grants its state employees a paid day off. That could soon change, however, if the newly introduced S. 475 bill passes both houses of Congress and becomes law.
Regardless of what happens, Dotson is optimistic — as are the other members of HellaCreative. The results from last year have proven social media’s ability to mobilize people to effectively incite change and reignite a discourse about Juneteenth that predates this generation and perhaps the generation before, too.
“Social media has played a role in bringing velocity to how quickly this conversation has spread,” he said. “It’s not necessarily useful for there to be this continued high volume of activity. The goal is that people start advancing the conversation of liberation and do the work at home and come back into the workplace and have the conversation there.”