John Harmon readily admits it: Some of the business leaders and business organizations that are now eager to create a relationship with the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey are the same ones that blew off the group just a few years before.
“They treated us as being insignificant and irrelevant,” he said Wednesday, the day that marked the chamber’s 15th anniversary.
But, when those folks reach out their hand today, Harmon responds the only way he feels is proper: He reaches right back.
“I don’t hold anybody at fault who didn’t return my calls or ignored my follow-ups 15 years ago,” he said.
It’s not his style, Harmon said. And It’s not a solution to the problem.
“We’re marching forward,” he said. “We’re forging relationships and responding to anyone who is responding to us.
“I know there are folks who ignored me then but are embracing me now. That’s OK. I’m embracing them back. That makes life more fulfilling and worth waking up for every day.”
Don’t be confused: Living for the present doesn’t mean forgetting about the past.
“The rearview mirror has to remain intact,” he said. “We have to be able to look back and accept things the way they were — and as a lesson learned to make it better in the future.”
That’s why Harmon is embracing Juneteenth as a national holiday — one he said needs to serve as day that educates and inspires.
“Slavery is a scar on the history of America, but I think the acknowledgement puts us on a path to a better understanding of our history and working toward a more harmonious coexistence,” he said.
Juneteenth can do that, Harmon said.
“There were 200,000-plus people enslaved two years longer than they were supposed to be,” he said. “That’s another blow to how Blacks were treated in this country.
“That’s why it’s so significant that Juneteenth is being acknowledged all over the U.S. — and by so many folks who, up until a year or so ago, were unaware of Juneteenth and its significance.”
Harmon is not looking for reparations. And he’s not placing blame. He’s looking for understanding.
He’s looking for an acknowledgement of great work by Booker T. Washington as one of the founders of the National Negro Business League.
He’s looking for acknowledgment of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when Black Wall Street — which was open and running — was literally and figuratively burned down. He’s looking for acknowledgement of the Rosewood Massacre in Florida two years later.
He’s looking for acknowledgement that so much has happened in the past that still impacts today.
“We’re not blaming anyone, but I think it’s important that we all share who we are because it helps us better appreciate where we’ve come from — and how we can build a better path forward together,” he said.
Harmon said it’s a case where life imitates business.
“You can’t build a stronger business unless you look at the results from last year, the prior year and the year before that, and get better,” he said. “History is only there to advise us and inform us of the past. It gives us an opportunity to take those lessons learned and improve upon them. That’s what life’s all about.
“History should not be used as a weapon to divide people. History is about informing, enlightening and educating.”
About the good and the bad, Harmon said.
“We celebrate the wars where America was victorious — even though we know there was a lot of tragedy in the triumph,” he said. “Why can’t we celebrate and understand Black history as part of American history?
“People came into Ellis Island as immigrants, and we always talk about how, ‘That’s what made America great.’ But they came in voluntarily. My people came here involuntarily, shackled to ships. And then they made a lot of people a lot of money with their free labor.
“There’s a tale of two stories.”
But only one future.
“We’re all here now,” he said. “And we have to find a way to coexist that’s of mutual benefit — and in the American spirit and our New Jersey spirit. That’s how I see.”
That’s how Harmon hopes everyone will see Juneteenth, which is on Sunday, but is being celebrated in the business world Friday.
He said he’s thrilled Juneteenth is being recognized, hopeful that it is educating — and determined that it doesn’t become just another holiday that loses its meaning.
“As an African American and a leader of an African American Chamber, it’s important that we make Juneteenth a part of our mission,” he said. “Being someone willing to foster relationships and be a positive example of coexistence is a way we can make the day meaningful, substantive and relevant.
“Relevancy is a key. People can be out celebrating with music and festivals, but let them also be educating and enlightening in a substantive way that makes others want to lean in and learn how to coexist in a way that’s mutually beneficial.”