What Juneteenth means to me

As a junior high and high school student growing up in metropolitan Washington, DC, I enjoyed a broad curriculum of ‘social studies’ comprising civics, geography, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and law. My interest in those topics, coupled with the stories my father shared and my personal life experiences as a Black American woman, led me to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government, then a Juris Doctorate before becoming a civil rights attorney and employment attorney. All that before ultimately joining the ranks of the broad and diverse human resources profession.

I have a few vivid memories from my studies, one of which includes learning about the US Supreme Court ruling in Scott v Sandford (1856) declaring that all people of African descent, free or slave, were not United States citizens and had no right to sue in federal court. In addition, the ruling confirmed that the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution protected slave owner rights because slaves were their legal property. This ruling added to the burgeoning polarization between proslavery and antislavery territories and states. That, along with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln — from the explicitly antislavery Republican party — to the US Presidency, served as the impetus for the Civil War fought between northern states loyal to the Union (i.e., the United States of America) and southern states that had rebelled and seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America.

I remember how struck I was when studying the Civil War to learn how long it took to recognize the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Though announced by President Lincoln on September 22, 1862, and issued January 1, 1863, it was two and a half years later on June 19, 1865 that slaves in Texas learned of their freedom. This was two months after Confederate States Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (April 9, 1865). Though this meant the end of the Civil War, it was only when the Union Army marched into Galveston, Texas, that slaves in the state learned of their freedom.

I try to imagine myself as an African American slave in 1865, learning that two and half years after its issuance, and two months after the end of the Civil War, I was free of slavery. I imagine the euphoria I might have felt for me and for my family, the tears I would have shed, and the celebrations I would have enjoyed. I imagine, like the newly freed slaves, participating in the demonstrative processions that led to a new, annual celebration on June 19 — aptly named Juneteenth.

This is what I think of on Juneteenth.

My next vivid memory from my studies was learning about the landmark US Supreme Court decision the following year in Plessy v Ferguson (May 18, 1896). This decision upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which became the legal basis for racial segregation in the United States for the next 50 years until another landmark decision by the Court in Brown v Board of Education in 1954 ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. This ruling paved the way for the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

These historical moments danced through my head as I graduated law school. They continued when I was sworn into the Maryland State Bar Association, the District of Columbia Bar Association, the Supreme Court Bar, and as I took the oath of office as an attorney-advisor in the US Department of Justice, charged with enforcing provisions of the Civil Rights Act. This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

All of these defining moments of my career would not exist without the Emancipation Proclamation and the annual celebration of Juneteenth. For me, Juneteenth is a reminder to pause and remember the African Americans who came before me and to celebrate and embrace my freedom. But while I celebrate my freedom, I must acknowledge that with the current unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, the killing of Breonna Taylor by law enforcement before that, and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by vigilante neighbors before that — and a long list of harassment, discrimination, and injustice running through American history — Black lives have demonstrably not mattered as much as other lives, and there is still a fight ahead of us.

Data shows that in 2019, Black people represented 24% of those killed by police in the US despite being only 13% of the population. Black people were also three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and these crimes were more likely to go unprosecuted. For example, the white vigilantes who killed Arbery remained free for three months until cell phone video went public and the men were finally arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. There are many examples of how Black Americans are profiled everyday while performing mundane activities. Police are often called in these situations, such as the incident when a white woman in Central Park called police to claim a Black man was threatening her and her dog’s safety.

So for me, this Juneteenth is also a reminder of how far we still have to go as a nation to make sure the rights and protections afforded by the US Constitution are not only equally applied, but equitably applied to Black lives. It is a reminder too of the progress we need to make in realizing the ideals of the nation’s pledge of allegiance to the American flag that affirms the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” Moreover, it is a time for companies across all industries to pause and look inward to ensure that they are not only providing equal opportunity for jobs, training, development, promotions, positions in leadership, etc., but that they are doing so equitably. This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

I am proud of Elastic's stand against racism and the solidarity displayed with Black Elasticians and the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this initiative included donation matching for an antiracism giving opportunity. I am thankful for the opportunity to have led the company’s moment of silence, and to solicit and share Elastician stories to broaden insight into the lived experiences of colleagues around the globe. I am also optimistic about our senior leadership and their dialogue and reflection on how to make Elastic more representative at all levels within the company.

I humbly call on colleagues and friends to pause this Juneteenth and consider reframing (or perhaps reinforcing) your definition of ‘equal’ as a pit stop on the never-ending journey to ‘equitable.

Karen R. Penn, JD

Elastic Cares/DIBS Team Lead

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