Juneteenth, What It Means and What You Can Do

Op/Ed commentary originally posted in the St. Louis Business Journal from Orvin T. Kimbrough, Chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre on June 19th, 2020

I know that there are so many who proceeded me and sacrificed so that I could be afforded the right, albeit limited, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  On the wall of my home office, I have two photos with captions, the first is of former slaves and the second is of a school for freed slaves. The former slaves caption, reads as follows, “The strongest people in the world aren’t those most protected; they are the ones that must struggle against adversity and surmount them— to survive”.  The latter freed slaves caption reads, “Even in the midst of our worst struggles, our forefathers knew that part of our advancement and growth began with a sound education”. I purchased these photos years ago, while traveling to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The messages tied to “overcoming, surviving, and advancement through education” were important enough for me to have them mounted and displayed prominently. My objective with this was to never forget where I came from and to challenge all who visit my home to become more conscious.

I grew up in foster care, my mom died when I was eight years of age, and I didn’t know my dad. What I did know early on is that I was born poor and in the lineage of slaves. Juneteenth is an annual holiday observing the end of slavery in the U.S. and marks the day (June 19, 1865) when news of emancipation reached people in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy in Galveston, Texas.

This year is complicated because as far as we have come, many African Americans are struggling with the moral code of the only country they’ve known and loved, despite its challenged history. It’s complicated because we have marchers who are white, black and brown, old and young taking to the streets in underserved communities as well as affluent ones demanding freedom. In polite circles we say that they are “asking” for racial equality, but the truth is they are demanding that those who have the power afford them the basic right to breathe. What they are demanding 155 years after June 19th, 1865 is that they be seen and treated as humans. They are demanding for equity across many of our most important domains, those that will create a more competitive America—justice, education, economic and health.

It pains me to say that black people still don’t truly feel free in the country we love. Yes, a few of us have done better materially, but as a people we are still disproportionately represented in every negative category that you can imagine. Those of us who are more enlightened citizens of this country have to know that this isn’t coincidental or an act of God.  A good friend of Midwest BankCentre recently talked to me about his view of the power of education and economics. Among many points, he specifically extolled the virtue of compound interest which got me to thinking about the many times that communities have been stripped of their economic gains and have had to start over.

I recently saw a segment on 60 Minutes where a man in his early thirties stated that he had never heard about the 1921 massacre in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of the wealthiest black communities in the United States at the time.  He knew nothing about what is considered the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. He knew nothing in spite of the fact that he is Black. Even still, he knew nothing, in spite of the fact that he grew up in the Greenwood District, that he went to school there, that he lived in the very neighborhood that was burnt to the ground—all 35 square blocks of it in 1921. He did not know! Because the community—Black and white— was silent for decades. The massacre was left out of school lessons and largely omitted from local, state and national histories.

Today’s peoples’ protestors are different. They are witnesses to the murder of George Floyd.  Hundreds of thousands of people have seen the unspeakable inhumanity of a white police officer toward an unarmed black man. And once you see, you can never unsee without night terrors, particularly if you believe in a power higher than yourself. Once your eyes are opened, you begin to examine things more closely. This event cannot be dismissed as a one-bad-apple-incident and hidden from history. I believe that we the people, now see, and collectively recognize that systems are broken. Policies around the justice system, economics, health care and education are not working equitably for all people. This is not about politics. This is about basic human rights, and both parties share the blame for decades of unjust legislation at the community, state and federal levels.

I often talk about the three-legged stool made up of government, philanthropy and business that share equal parts shaping our Democracy. I am heartened by the fact that so many are speaking up and speaking out. Those who are able are marching and many are demanding change from our policy makers. And in spite of all the economic uncertainty that many face, we are reaching out in kind and charitable ways to help others. I believe that many of us are privileged and have agency. Because of what others who came before me sacrificed, I know I can do more than survive, and I refuse to be an exception. It will take those of us who are more than just symbolically interested in our country thriving, to extend ourselves beyond the typical charitable contributions. Let us create platforms for a more educated citizenry, challenge ourselves to see beyond scarcity to humanity, and activate our networks to continue the
“after Juneteenth work” for equity in justice, education, economic and health.

Orvin T. Kimbrough is Chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre, the second largest locally owned community bank serving the St. Louis region.  Orvin previously served as CEO of the United Way of Greater St. Louis, leading it to among the largest of 1,2000 United Ways in the country.

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