Juneteenth Discussion Looks Back to Move Forward
By Gina Myers
June 17, 2021
As Juneteenth approaches, it’s natural to reflect on the past year—a year in which a pandemic raged and uprisings for racial justice spread across the country following the murder of George Floyd. It was also a year that, pushed by the movement for racial justice, many universities, including Drexel, recognized Juneteenth as a university holiday. And now the federal government is moving toward making the day, which has also been known as Jubilee, Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, a federally recognized holiday.
On Wednesday, June 16, the Office of Equality and Diversity and the Center for Black Culture dedicated time to reflect on all that has happened and to think about what yet needs to be done in a panel discussion on the topic of Juneteenth and racial justice. Titled “Looking Back to Move Forward: A Frank Conversation in Commemoration of Juneteenth,” the event was moderated by Patience Ajoff-Foster, PhD, CDP, executive director for diversity and inclusive culture.
The panel opened with Erwan Terrien, PhD, adjunct professor of Africana studies, providing a historical overview of the holiday, including noting what news outlets are getting wrong about Juneteenth as they report on the moves by Congress to make it a federally recognized holiday. Terrien says the historical record of note for Juneteenth is not the Emancipation Proclamation, but rather a short proclamation by General Gordon Granger issued in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, that freed the enslaved people and said they were entitled to the same equality of rights and rights of property as the former slaveholders.
“It’s a pretty radical proclamation because he’s essentially saying, ‘You’re not slaves anymore. You’re going to have to work for a living, but you’re entitled to equality with your former enslavers,’” explained Terrien. “This was not to happen, and it probably still hasn’t happened. But that was the promise.”
At the earliest Juneteenth celebrations, formerly enslaved people dressed in their finest clothing “to reclaim the dignity that had been denied them for so long,” said Terrien. These early celebrations were also taking place during the rise of Jim Crow laws, which led people to pool resources to purchase their own land for parks where Juneteenth celebrations could be held.
Terrien acknowledged that Juneteenth celebrations were muted for decades, in part because new generations were looking at other forms of racial uplift and not as eager to talk about the history of slavery. However, he cited two things that would change that in the 20th century: the Great Migration to Northern cities, which brought celebrations to those cities, and the Poor People’s Campaign’s March on Washington, DC, in 1968, which was scheduled to conclude on June 19. In more recent years the holiday has been popularized in TV shows such as black-ish and movies like Miss Juneteenth, and celebrations have even received corporate sponsorship.
A Lost History
Following the historical overview, the panelists discussed their experiences of Juneteenth in their own lives, where the consensus seemed to be that it was not a holiday that they were aware of until more recently.
Fred Allen, PhD, teaching professor and associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, grew up in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and 1970s, but said he had not been aware of Juneteenth.
“I never heard of Juneteenth—it just wasn’t in our sphere. [It] was something that was really pushed out of our sphere of recognition,” he said. “I’m late to the party, but I think it is a great celebration. It is a tradition that has to continue, and it has to grow because we’re going to learn from it. This is the kind of thing that will spread the word into the fabric of our culture that needs to be known about where we come from and who we are, so I think it’s a very good thing.”
Tianna Williams, current Drexel student activist, had a similar experience. She was somewhat aware of the holiday, but it wasn’t celebrated in the communities she was a part of. “The history is really what’s important, and a lot of times that’s what has held our community down—that our history is not shown to us or it’s not passed down. It’s kind of lost. And that’s one of the reasons why [Juneteenth] has gotten the recognition that it has recently and not before—it’s because so many people just didn’t know about it.”
Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Kimberly Gholston also reflected on this lost history, saying it was not something she learned about in school. “No one ever talked about it, but no one ever talked about a lot of things as it relates to the history of Africans, African Americans and slavery through my education,” she said.
For Scott Cooper, PhD, president and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences, it was a surprise to learn that Juneteenth was not a recognized holiday in the United States. As a fairly recent British immigrant to the United States, Cooper said, “I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a thing already.” He listed some of the emancipation days celebrated across the world in former British colonies. “It’s just astonishing that I was in a country where this was not celebrated—where it is not nailed as a significant day of consequence in the history of the country.”
Reflecting on the Past Year
From serving on committees and launching and serving on the Anti-Racism Task Force, the panelists have been very busy during the past year. Gholston called the past year “one of the most challenging, yet rewarding” years.
“I’ve spent a lot of time beating myself up about what hasn’t been done. And then one day, I just had to take a moment to say what has been done. And it may not be enough for everybody, but it’s further than we were,” she said. “And it’s slower than what I wanted. And it’s not always as supported as I would like it to be.”
For Williams, the year was “very conflicting and very exhausting.” She shared how Black students were not only mourning the death of George Floyd, but also keeping up with all the protests while COVID-19 was raging on, all while being either in co-op or classes and dealing with things in their personal lives.
“Everyone was juggling so much at the time,” she explained. “It was really exhausting. I didn’t realize how much of a toll it took on me until the end of the fall/beginning of winter term, and I just kind of had to go dark on everything.”
Williams also expressed frustration with how slow things were going. “This stuff is not new. This is stuff we have wanted and been asking for, been vying for, for so long. And to finally have the door open wider than it’s ever been, but knowing that it’s still going to take baby steps is very frustrating to live with—but it’s just the reality of change in a system of white supremacy.”
As a member of a subcommittee on undergraduate student life that looked critically at how Drexel was doing, Allen got to hear from current Black students about their struggles, which are many of the same issues he experienced as an undergraduate 30 years before. “We are making progress, but some things are just not changing. I can honestly say that what’s not changing is white supremacy,” he said. “White supremacy is still at work. And white supremacy is something every generation is going to have a struggle with.”
Ajoff-Foster acknowledged the toll that this work takes and the importance of pausing to recharge to have the energy to move forward again. She also discussed “the black tax,” which is the additional burden of service Black people experience. “For faculty, sometimes that looks like having more students seek you out and trying to find you to talk, or you’re being invited to as many open houses we have so that we can show we’re a diverse institution,” she said. “[It’s] like an additional workflow that is not often recognized.”
Cooper recognized that his experiences are very different. “I have been the beneficiary of white privilege my entire life. So let’s be really clear, there’s no way the events of the past 12 months affected me in the same way that it has affected so many of my colleagues,” he said.
However, he has also seen real change in how people view these issues in the community that makes him hopeful for the future. “I sensed within the institution that [people thought], ‘We’re progressive and liberal, we’re educated, this doesn’t really impact us.’ Nowadays, there is much more of a shared understanding of the complicity of all of us, and the involvement of everybody in doing what we can to advance change.”
The Struggle Continues
All panelists have seen positive signs of change in the past year, but they also see that there is a long way to go. Allen is inspired by both the past and the future to do this work. “My ancestors, my parents, what they had to deal with is motivating for me. And I’m motivated and inspired by the future,” he said, citing the work of students like Williams.
He added that he is also motivated to do this work for his seven-year-old son. “He knows what black and white is, but he doesn’t understand it in the context of history yet. But he’ll learn, and guess what, his generation is going to have to struggle. It’s not going to be our struggle that we’re dealing with right now. It’s going to going to be his struggle and his time.”
The panel also discussed the need for all people, including white people, to be involved in the work of advancing racial justice. Ajoff-Foster acknowledged that we might have colleagues who think this is a Black agenda, or who don’t believe race is an issue, or who think the movement is about cancel culture. She asked Gholston what to say to these colleagues to motivate them to get involved.
“First, I say listen, listen to your Black students, listen to your colleagues, listen to what’s happening in the world, and know that your silence and your inability to engage, your inability to think about how we help and change, doesn’t move Drexel in a way that we need to go,” answered Gholston. “If you’re here in support of your students, in support of staff and faculty, this [work] is part of it."
“[People say,] ‘Well, this is a race thing, or this is a Black thing.’ This is your colleagues’ thing. This is your students’ thing. This is Drexel's thing.”
Gholston knows some people feel intimidated to enter these conversations, worried they might say the wrong thing and offend someone. Her advice is to give yourself some grace—figure out your apologies, know that you might not use the right terms, but have your intentions and heart in the right place, and find out how you can help.
Ajoff-Foster added, “This is not about whether or not you’re a good or bad person. This is about how we can continue to be better today than we were yesterday.”
The panel discussion concluded with Shardé Johnson, director for the Center for Black Culture, sharing resources for the Juneteenth holiday in Philadelphia, including an event in historic Germantown and a series of events hosted by Juneteenth Philly. She also recommended the National Museum of African American History & Culture/Smithsonian Juneteenth site to learn more and a resource for buying from Black businesses.