Nineteenth Day is not a federally recognized holiday. At least not yet. A bill to make it a national holiday is currently going through Congress, but until recently it was not something that was widely celebrated in the United States.
For black Americans, however, Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, which secured the emancipation of the enslaved population under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, is a date on par with the Fourth of July.
Last year, hundreds of companies and thousands of citizens participated for the first time in the Nineteenth Anniversary celebration following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the months of protests and Internet activism that followed. Thanks to a group of creatives who seized the momentum and launched a clever and timely social media campaign, millions of people around the world have been encouraged to recognize the Nineteenth as an official holiday and are asking their legislators to do the same.
Growing up in Houston, Miles Dotson, a “creative technologist” and entrepreneur, celebrated the nineteenth with his family every year, but for a long time he thought it was just a regional event.
“It just seemed like a Texas event,” he said. “When I was in college, I went to all these other places to celebrate Nineteen Years Day and noticed that it was kind of recognized and respected, but not necessarily a big deal.”
That all changed in 2020.
When the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, Dotson and his colleagues worried that the community of creatives they had created would be greatly affected. So they created a channel on Slack, called themselves and invited friends from different fields and industries into “one ecosystem,” he said.
HellaCreative, a collective of Bay Area artists, content creators, designers and developers, held weekly happy hours and organized discussion boards where people could collaborate and connect, though not in person.
After the news of Floyd’s death last May, the group was shaken. According to Dotson, the video quickly spread online, and watching it was “visually devastating.” Nevertheless, HellaCreative decided to get together for happy hour that week anyway to “save space” and discuss what comes next.
“In recent years, with Black Lives Matter and a whole bunch of other movements that broadly express blackness and just the spirit of liberation and moving culture forward, we had a conversation about doing something for Junette,” he said.
It was at this virtual meeting that the hashtag and corresponding campaign #HellaJuneteenth emerged. The band’s sleek and easy-to-distribute logo (with matching graphics), created by Quinton Harris, made the campaign go viral.
Dotson and the HellaCreative team launched the #HellaJuneteenth landing page, filled with testimonials, educational resources and the opportunity to send a letter to local and state representatives, on Friday, June 5, 2020 – 11 days after Floyd’s death.
The response was immediate.
As early as the following Monday, technology executives, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, promoted the site as a resource for users to learn about the Decade. Until 2020, many non-black Americans knew almost nothing about the holiday.
“It was like a fire hose,” Dotson says. “We didn’t have time to consciously think about what was going on, we were just very responsive to the wave, staying up nights until three or four in the morning to update the site.”
Within five days of the site’s launch, more than 600 companies, such as VSCO, Adobe, Lyft, Spotify and Netflix, had signed a pledge to recognize the nineteenth as a paid corporate holiday for their employees.
To date, the digital reach of the #HellaJuneteenth campaign is over 300 million unique impressions (number of content views).
“When we started this campaign, we wanted people to really care about this holiday and help our friends in corporate America get a chance to ask for a day off,” Dotson said. “We wanted to create positive opposition to the devastation we felt.”
Since then, the pace of online campaigns for social justice has slowed, but Dotson believes that’s natural. The push to make Nineteen Feet Day a federal holiday has been decades in the making. Forty-seven states currently recognize it, but only Texas gives its state employees a paid day off. However, that may soon change if the recently introduced bill, S. 475 passes through both houses of Congress and becomes law.
Regardless of what happens, Dotson is optimistic, as are other members of HellaCreative. Last year’s results have proven the ability of social media to mobilize people to effectively incite change and reignite the Nineteenth Anniversary debate that has arisen since this generation and perhaps the previous one.
“Social media has played a role in giving speed to how quickly this conversation has spread,” he said. “The activity doesn’t necessarily have to continue at a high level. The goal is for people to start promoting the liberation conversation, doing work at home, going back to the workplace and having the conversation there.”