Juneteenth, or June 19, is the commemoration of the end of slavery, dating back to 1865.
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the countless enslaved persons across the United States. However, this was not in effect for places still under Confederate control. Two years later, on June 19, 1865, it was announced that the remaining enslaved Black people in the state were free by executive order.
The significance of this event has caused the date to be a celebration for many Black communities.
Winsome Chunnu, director of the Multicultural Center at Ohio University, said the definition of Juneteenth is rather nuanced, as it holds various layered meanings that have evolved over time.
“My words are rooted in the history of Juneteenth, so I struggle with what freedom means because there are scholars in the African American community and I'm among them, (who argue) being free in the United States for people of color is still debatable today,” Chunnu said. “But Juneteenth is historically when the slaves in Texas were finally freed from servitude two years after the official Emancipation Proclamation. That information was hidden from slaves. And there were also slaveholders who fled to Texas with their slaves to continue servitude, because they knew they would have been protected. When Major General Granger marched into Galveston and announced this on June 19, in 1865, that’s when this significant moment will be recognized within our country.”
Mikaela Woods, a senior studying commercial photography, is the vice president of the NAACP at OU. Woods noted that while celebration is important, it should not mask the recognition of the day’s historical and cultural significance.
“I knew about (Juneteenth) my whole life, but it was never really celebrated in my family,” Woods said. “I would say Juneteenth is the true independence day. It's pretty authentic in the memoriam of celebrating a legal action against systemic racism. It is the first time when Black people learned that they were free from slavery. So in that way, I think it's super important to celebrate within anybody's community, not just the Black community, so that we all have a freedom mentality and we all are representing ourselves to our fullest extent.”
For the first time at OU, there will be a Juneteenth Celebration, commemorating the historic day with two educational and social events.
Vanessa Morgan-Nai, coordinator for Multicultural Advising and African American Student Success, is a co-chair for the event. Morgan-Nai described that the Juneteenth festivities will consist of a morning health walk and end with a Juneteenth Festival in the evening.
“We wanted to have an activity that would allow people to do something that was health related, that is why we decided to do (the health walk),” Morgan-Nai said. “So in the morning, between 10 (a.m.) to 12 (p.m.), we will gather at Mill Street, and take the bike path, and then take a walk over there, just for people to be able to start the morning on a healthy note. Then later in the evening, we'll do the Juneteenth fair, which is a little festival in the afternoon, from 3 (p.m.) to 6 p.m. And this is a time for inviting the community and everybody else to just come by, and spend time as we share and listen to what Juneteenth is about. And then create a time to just celebrate the day through music, foods, different activities for kids, and adults as well.”
Micah McCarey, director of the OU LGBT Center, is a part of the committee involved with the Juneteenth events. McCarey said the events will serve a diverse purpose as it will extend to the increased inclusivity of the Athens community.
“This Juneteenth event is doubling as our first community welcome as a collaboration with our Division of Diversity and Inclusion such that we can hopefully welcome families that have moved to Athens recently, with a really beautiful display of inclusion in celebration of freedom with different groups,” McCarey said. “And I think that (these events are) a really beautiful set of first-time things coming together that are blending University and greater Athens' efforts around social justice.”
Lauren Brown, a junior studying chemistry pre-pharmacy, is the president of the Black Student Union at OU. When learning of the events this year, Brown felt conflicted regarding the intentions behind them.
“I'm honestly conflicted with a lot of things that OU does,” Brown said. “Because sometimes I feel like, ‘Are you guys doing this because this is something that you actually believe in, or are you doing this because you just want to look good?’ I'm definitely grateful that they are doing this. They're recognizing the holiday, but it just makes me a little bit upset.”
Woods echoed Brown’s feelings of wariness surrounding the University’s decision to hold events for Juneteenth this year. Woods said the choice to celebrate is appropriate, but that it must be accompanied by further efforts.
“I don't really know how to feel about it because I don't think OU has ever recognized Juneteenth before this year,” Woods said. “And given the amount of different racist acts on white students’ parts against black students and students of color on campus, it just doesn't seem authentic. And when working with the NAACP, we have been in conference with some of the administrators and gaining knowledge as to what their mindset is for Black students on campus and what they're trying to implement, and how to retain and make it a safer environment. So, I think it's cool that they're doing it. But I think there could be other ways that they could use their time on progressing for the students on campus. But it's a good step in the right direction of educating and celebrating things that are important to the students.”
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a law officially establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Chunnu said the move to make Juneteenth a federally-recognized holiday is important, but she emphasized that it is not at the center of the issue.
“Moving to make that happen is crucial for us to continue this conversation around how African Americans are constructed in this country, how that is rooted in slavery and can evolve into a larger conversation about our school system,” Chunnu said. “And I'm bringing that up as someone who works in higher education and someone who believes in the power of education. I do not want Juneteenth to be just a legally paid holiday, I also want the real and true history of Juneteenth to be taught in our schools, and the discussion about how is it that in our country, our president could have made such an important proclamation, and yet one state went on for two more years with a system that will forever be a blot on the history of our great country. Those are the kinds of discussions that I want to send around Juneteenth, not just ‘Oh, it's another paid holiday.’”
Aside from the legalization and the celebrations surrounding Juneteenth, Chunnu said the importance of the holiday resides in the way systemic racism is still perpetuated within the U.S.
“It's coming out of one of those really visceral periods in the history of our country,” Chunnu said. “And a period that is still contested today. For example, when we talk about white privilege, and how that is rooted in the legacy of slavery, and the responses, are ‘I have nothing to do with that, I didn't own slaves.’ Well, we know you personally didn’t own slaves. That's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is that, as Black people, we were enslaved. And as a result of that, we were constructed in a particular image by the people who enslaved us. Those constructs have remained with us up until today.”
Through centralizing these conversations and celebrations of Juneteenth in Athens, McCarey said it will ignite the diversity and multiculturalism present within the area.
“This is an incredibly important and rich time to increase awareness and celebration of Juneteenth,” McCarey said. “And doing it in Southeast Ohio is a powerful message that combats the assumption that because we are a predominantly white area we are somehow not celebratory of multiculturalism. And we do have so many wonderful people of color and allies here who have not only been putting their hearts, but also their hands into those kinds of inclusion practices. And now, to do it after a year of pandemic and around the anniversary of George Floyd's death and the Black Lives Matter movement, doing this kind of work in Southeast Ohio is sending the message that we are making progress.”