When Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, it was bittersweet for YPO member Jason Edwards, CEO at Providence Realty Investors Inc. Thrilled that Congress approved the bill, he was unable to share in the celebration with his father, Albert Edwards, who had died in 2020. The elder Edwards, a former Texas state representative, is considered the “Father of Juneteenth.”  

In 1979, the freshman legislator authored and championed a bill through the Texas state legislature that formally recognized the Texas emancipation from slavery – Juneteenth – also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day. Getting the 19th of June recognized as a state holiday was the prime reason Rep. Edwards ran for office in 1979. 

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 – two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed – when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, USA, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. 

Texas was the first state to recognize the day as a formal holiday.

“That’s my father’s true legacy,” Edwards says. “Dad thought Juneteenth needed to be not just a Black celebration, but a Texas-wide celebration. Three to four million Americans came out of slavery to freedom on that day. And even though that freedom was tenuous at that time, it was still freedom.” 

Rep. Edwards founded the nonprofit Juneteenth USA in 1979, which his son now serves as chairman and president. Through corporate speaking events and educational programs, Juneteenth USA works to increase corporate adoption of the holiday, support historically Black colleges and universities (HCBUs) and uplift under-resourced communities. 

Edwards often speaks at public events and for companies about Juneteenth, reminding his audiences that Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the second most impactful day in the country’s quest for freedom – coming in just after the Fourth of July.

As a leader in YPO, Edwards says it’s vital that his fellow members lead those conversations and see Juneteenth as an opportunity. 

“Use Juneteenth as a day to communicate to your company and the descendants of American slavery, that you hear them, you see their history and you recognize their story,” Edwards urges. “Turning a blind eye to our painful past just slows that healing process.”

The power of Juneteenth and YPO

Juneteenth represents brighter days filled with celebration and joy but also as a reminder of the pain and struggles America’s Black community experienced – and still experiences. At YPO, with its vision to inspire and support leaders to make a difference in the world, the day also serves as an opportunity.

YPO member Mandy Price is CEO of Kanarys, a technology company focused on providing the tools organizations need to create systemic change around diversity, equity and inclusion. She says she hopes her peers use Juneteenth to open a dialogue, talk about the importance of equity and inclusion, and create change.

“It takes active participation by everyone to create the kind of environment where everyone, irrespective of their background, is afforded the opportunity to thrive and contribute to society,” Price says.

Growing up, Price’s family’s Juneteenth celebrations always included the historical perspective, which helped her understand the sacrifices made to secure freedom for all Americans.

“Our society doesn’t just happen on its own,” she says. “It takes all of us to ensure that we are creating a world that is working for the betterment of all. It’s not just a moral imperative, but societal necessity.”

That message of involvement and equity is one YPO member Ernest Hunter II, Navy veteran and CEO at the Frenchy’s Companies, is very familiar. Growing up in Bryan, Texas, USA, Hunter remembers Juneteenth as more of a cultural celebration. His grandmother’s house sat on the Juneteenth parade route and served as a gathering place for families from around the neighborhood to grill and celebrate after the parade. 

His view of Juneteenth has evolved since then. “Juneteenth is the true acceptance of the Declaration of Independence,” Hunter says, adding it was when the country began its long journey to accept that all people are created equal. 

“It’s a journey that is not over for our country,” he says. Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday is a moment in U.S. history when the country decided that “we could be better, and we were going to be better,” he adds.

Creating even more impact

Hunter has made this goal of “being better” as part of his company’s mission. Frenchy’s Chicken has been part of Houston’s historically Black Third Ward since 1969. For 2024’s Juneteenth celebration, Frenchy’s is partnering with a young Black-owned company, a competitor, to create a menu collaboration for the community.  

“We hope it shows the community, and really everyone, that Juneteenth was just the beginning of the journey,” Hunter says. “The way we continue to improve Black-owned businesses is to work together and cross competitor lines.”

Leaders working together and supporting each other is fostered through YPO, Hunter says. “YPO is helping us live out our dreams and helping us grow our companies, which allows us to have a greater impact on our communities,” he says. “Hopefully, we are helping others in YPO, who don’t look like us, to push the envelope within their businesses and their communities.”

Celebrating and supporting Black leaders is one of the biggest benefits of YPO for member Devon Henry, President of Team Henry Enterprises, LLC. He finds the most joy and support within the Black YPO Network.

“We share our joy and celebrate each other’s wins,” he says about the smaller group of YPO members within the larger organization. “We’re constantly asking how we can help each other,” Henry says, adding that one of the reasons he is in YPO is to help others enjoy the same success.

“Before YPO, I never understood as a Black business owner what I didn’t know,” he says. More Black professionals need the resources and access he has as a member of YPO, he says. “It could help save your business and take your business to different levels,” says Henry, who recently stepped up to serve as the diversity and inclusion officer in the Southeast U.S. to help ensure YPO grows its diverse membership.