William Blair Commemorates Juneteenth With History Lesson on Race and Wealth

Monday, June 21, 2021

Marcia Thompson
From left, Toya Garcia-Bradow, a member of William Blair’s ONE Alliance, and Marcia Thompson, the featured speaker at the firm’s Juneteenth talk

In recognition of Juneteenth, William Blair was honored to host Marcia Thompson, a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion, for an amazing talk—40 Acres and a Mule—on the journey of African Americans from slavery to today.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Throughout history it has been known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, or Liberation Day to mark June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, telling the state’s residents that slavery had been abolished two years earlier by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

“As we reflect on this important day in history, we want to emphasize the importance of creating an environment where all voices are heard and that our firm value of inclusivity is lived and recognized,” Sharon Zackfia, a William Blair partner and executive sponsor of WB’s business resource group ONE Alliance, said at the virtual gathering of colleagues held June 17.

Thompson is an attorney with over 20 years of experience working in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) across industries from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits. She started her career working for the U.S. Department of Justice where she realized her passion for DEI. Among her many roles, Thompson is advisor to the YWCA, a William Blair community partner.

The YWCA, with a 160-year legacy of fighting for racial justice and empowering women, launched an educational campaign in 2020 to help communities and businesses to take steps towards eliminating racism.

History Lesson on 40 Acres and a Mule

Thompson presented an American history lesson on the African American experience beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction to the era of Black Code and Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement to the social unrest in response to the murder of George Floyd by police last year.

Many of those experiences have never been taught in U.S. classrooms, she said.

“If we know better, we will do better, and I think education should include all aspects of history,” said Thompson, citing the importance of teaching Black history from pre-school through college.

Among the lessons Thompson shared was the decades-long conversation about slavery reparations that began with a promise from the federal government to allot “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves. Issued near the end of the Civil War in January 1865, the order was overturned later that year by President Andrew Johnson. Since then, the phrase “40 acres and a mule” has come to symbolize broken promises to African Americans.

Juneteenth Becomes New Federal Holiday

Thompson was thrilled to be giving her talk on the same day President Biden made Juneteenth—June 19—a federal holiday. The law went into effect immediately.

“All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history,” Biden said at a ceremony at the White House, noting it was the first national holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr.’s  birthday in 1983. 

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre when the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed on May 31-June 1, 1921. Hundreds of African Americans were killed and their businesses destroyed. The neighborhood, built by Black entrepreneurs who reinvested in their community, has never recovered to its heyday.

The Tulsa massacre is yet another example of a story lost in history.

“Even people who grew up in Oklahoma say they didn’t know about it and they were African American,” she said. “So you know it was not something that was celebrated or discussed because of the fear.”

Undoubtedly, the past year has shed a spotlight on systems that have caused social and racial injustices and huge gaps in equity suffered by so many for decades, she said. But moving forward “I do see light.”

“One of our jobs is to try to highlight how we can try to interrupt those systems and be on the right side of justice.”

News Alerts

Stay connected to your favorite publications and news features.

Subscribe Now