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Juneteenth: My Story and Black America’s Ongoing Pursuit toward Progress

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As we reflect on Juneteenth and celebrate the anniversary of the final emancipation of the last slaves in this country some two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, I am reminded that though the physical chains of slavery were broken, the invisible chains of systemic racism have continued to hinder Black Americans' progress to this day.

From voting rights to the criminal justice system, and from income and employment disparities to inadequacies in access to capital, we continue to see the strains that pull at the fabric of the African American community. And in this moment of celebration and remembrance, we must also be bold in confronting the systemic challenges that continue to have a hold on the Black community, while also keeping a firm eye on our history to help guide us. 

For me, that has meant looking to my ancestors and their experiences to help ground me with every decision I make. Their story is my story, but it is also the story of this Department and this nation.

My great-great-grandmother, Mary Anna Ringgold Wormley, was freed from slavery nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation following the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act by President Lincoln, which freed slaves in the District of Columbia. Her husband, James T. Wormley, became the very first graduate of Howard University, which today is a partner with many parts of the Commerce Department, including NOAA and the Minority Business Development Agency.

My four-times great grandparents, also former slaves, built a successful horse and buggy taxi business in Washington that once stood at the site of the Commerce Department's headquarters. Their son, also an entrepreneur, went on to become one of our nation's first Black patent-holders through Commerce's U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

When I was sworn in on May 14th as the 19th Deputy Secretary of Commerce, my hand was on a family copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution signed by President Lincoln and more than 150 members of Congress gifted to my three-times great-grandfather by his friend, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, and passed down through my family for generations. That document and the Emancipation Proclamation that preceded it ended and abolished slavery but didn’t end the systemic racism that continues to exist within our country.

For far too many Americans, particularly for Black Americans, their hopes and dreams, ideas and innovations, hard work and perseverance haven’t been enough.  The very structure and systems our forebears created to promote the general welfare have oftentimes held our citizens back.  That has meant our nation as a whole has never lived up to its potential.  Our efforts to be a more inclusive and equitable nation are not just a moral imperative, but an economic one as well.  As the Kellogg Foundation has found, if we close the yawning racial gap in incomes of Americans, we will increase our national GDP by a massive $8 trillion by 2050.

President Biden has always cared deeply about issues affecting the Black community. And by taking the step to officially make Juneteenth a federal holiday, he has acknowledged our collective history and begun the process to tackle the systemic challenges in front of us. And the Biden-Harris Administration is committed to taking significantly more action to reinvest in people and communities that have been left behind by failed policies of the past.

President Biden announced new actions to build Black wealth and narrow the racial wealth gap by creating jobs and economic opportunity. Through this initiative, the Administration is expanding access to two key wealth-creators – homeownership and small business ownership – in communities of color and disadvantaged communities. Specifically, this plan will create an innovative grant program through the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) that will help minority-owned manufacturers access private capital.

As the voice of business and American workers, the Commerce Department works every day to support and invest in the business community to create jobs and promote economic growth. But Commerce is also the Department of data and science and global trade.  Whether it is finding ways to support those who have new ideas and innovations but have historically had difficulty taking their ideas to the global marketplace with patent and trademark protection, or looking at climatological data and thinking about the ways investment decisions can be more environmentally just, the Commerce Department is looking at all of its tools to make our economy and communities more inclusive and to develop policies that will have a real impact on communities of color. 

So, on this first federally recognized Juneteenth, let us celebrate, but let us keep using our history to not forget the significant and difficult work ahead.

-- Don Graves, Jr., 19th Deputy Secretary of Commerce