Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Flag-bearers and attendees move to south side of the Walnut Street Bridge for the ceremony. 100 flag-bearers combined with 55 flags hung from the bridge commemorated 155 years since emancipation form slavery. People gathered during the Chattanooga Festival of Black Arts & Ideas's 3rd Annual Juneteenth Independence Day Commemoration, "A Bridge Over Troubled Waters," on Friday, June 19, 2020.

For years, Carmen Davis celebrated Juneteenth with friends and family, gathering for food, music and fellowship in observance of the day in 1865 when word of their freedom reached enslaved people in Texas.

"It's not just a Black American holiday — it's an American holiday, and it's American history," said Davis, a program management coordinator in community relations at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

This year, Davis is one of 6,500 BlueCross employees who will have a paid day off to commemorate the effective end of slavery in the United States, which came on June 19, 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"I celebrated Juneteenth for years privately, and when the company decided to offer this paid holiday, it made me really proud that they saw the value in honoring Juneteenth," Davis said.

Local businesses including BlueCross, Cempa Community Care and Alleo Health are part of a growing movement to make Juneteenth a paid day off. National brands including Nike, Target and Ben & Jerry's observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday, as do states including Maine, Washington, Virginia and Massachusetts.

In May, Chattanooga City Council member Demetrus Coonrod successfully introduced an ordinance to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for city employees. The measure passed unanimously and will take effect in 2022.

There had previously been a proclamation recognizing Juneteenth, but that wasn't enough, Coonrod said.

"I wanted it to be changed to an ordinance set in stone, and an ordinance makes it a law," she said. "Fourth of July isn't a celebration for all people because Black people were still slaves. Juneteenth is for everybody — it's a celebration that everybody is free."

Ronald Harris, vice president for Diversity and Inclusion at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said the decision to offer Juneteenth as a paid day off started with feedback from employees after a summer of painful national reckoning on racial justice in 2020.

"We were having a number of conversations last year, like most organizations, as it related to racism and social injustice, and we raised the question with employees of what can we do better as an organization?" Harris said.

The suggestion that Juneteenth become an official paid day off was at the top of the list of employee feedback, he said. The company will recognize the holiday at all its locations across the state, which means about 5,500 employees in Chattanooga and 6,500 employees statewide will have Friday off.

Cempa Community Care made Juneteenth a paid day off for employees last year and will observe the holiday on Friday, said Akil Lloyd, human resources administrator.

"Not only are we here to serve and eliminate health care disparities, but we want to be very representative of the communities we serve," he said. "It's also Pride month, so we're celebrating pride as well."

Ricardo Morris, the founder of the Chattanooga Festival of Black Art and Ideas, said the growing observances of Juneteenth are encouraging progress. When he first decided to launch the festival four years ago, he searched online for Chattanooga and Juneteenth, and "almost nothing came up," he said.

"That was one indication that the event could fill a niche," Morris said.

Since then, the festival has grown to incorporate multiple observations through the month of June, and the number of other Juneteenth events has grown to a point where organizers are ready to join forces for the next one, Morris said.

"My bigger vision for the Black arts festival and Juneteenth is that it becomes a citywide event each year," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

Juneteenth happenings

The Chattanooga Festival of Black Art and Ideas ( will host several events in the next few days:

> An artists roundtable at Keeody Gallery at 756 W. M.L. King Blvd., on Friday, June 18, from 6 to 8 p.m.

> A Black Film Festival every Friday in June, at Community Haven at 815 N. Hickory St., at 8:30 p.m.

> A genealogy workshop at Chattanooga State Community College on Saturday, June 19, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

> A Juneteenth Block Party and Legacy Music Festival at Community Haven at 815 N. Hickory St., on Saturday, June 19, from 3 to 9 p.m.

Other Juneteenth events in Chattanooga include:

> Lil Mama's Chicago Style Hoagy will host a Juneteenth Weekend Art Gallery at 828 Georgia Ave., on Friday, June 18, from 7 to 9 p.m.

> The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will host its annual Diversify Summit online on Friday, June 18, from 10 a.m. to noon. (Registration required.)

> The city's Office of Multicultural Affairs will host a Juneteenth celebration at Waterhouse Pavilion at 850 Market St., on Saturday, June 19, from noon to 5 p.m.

> The Bethlehem Center will host a Juneteenth festival at 200 W. 38th St., on Saturday, June 19 from noon to 5 p.m.

> The Chattery will host a Juneteenth celebration at 1800 Rossville Ave., on Saturday, June 19, from 1 to 4 p.m.

> Proof Bar and Incubator will host the Neutral Ground Crawfish Boil and Juneteenth celebration at 422 E. M.L. King Blvd., on Saturday, June 19, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Tickets required.)

> The Big 9 Street Food will celebrate its grand opening and Juneteenth at 611 E. M.L. King Blvd. on Saturday, June 19, at 11 a.m.

> Chattanooga Business Elite will celebrate Juneteenth at The Renaissance Center at 630 North Ave., Rossville, Georgia, from 7 to 11 p.m. (Tickets required.)