For Kendall Vining, a black student at Rice University, and her family, Juneteenth has usually been a quiet, private and even “solemn” remembrance of the day in 1865 when the end of the Civil War and slavery was announced to black people in Texas.
Vining said she and her family knew what June 19 meant, but they also understood not many others did. But this year feels different; Vining said there’s a “refreshing” acknowledgment of Juneteenth on a national level and growing recognition by nonblack people of its historical significance.
“It was always something that wasn’t very well recognized and known about,” said Vining, who lives in Louisiana. “We didn’t assume that people knew about this. To see so many people, not just starting up events and lectures … but even seeing special ‘40 percent off’ Juneteenth sales, I’m not used to that.”
Colleges across the country, some for the first time, are engaging with their students, faculty and staff about Juneteenth in a variety of ways, including launching awareness and education campaigns or community programs and giving employees the day off. Rice, which is in Houston, is hosting an inaugural lecture series on the legacy of slavery and race in America. Smith College, a liberal arts and historically women’s institution in Northampton, Mass., is giving faculty and staff members the day off, according to a message sent campuswide by President Kathleen McCartney. She encouraged black staff members to “rest and rejuvenate” and white and nonblack staff members to “spend time educating themselves and taking other actions to actively counter racism.”
It's not just colleges that are commemorating Juneteenth. Against the backdrop of nationwide protests against police brutality toward black people and a wide-ranging national discourse about systemic racism across various American institutions and systems, celebrating the holiday seems to have gained momentum. There is new urgency by colleges, companies and state and local politicians who are eager to show support for the social movement underway and perhaps signal that they are on the right side of history.
Noliwe Rooks, professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, said this year, Juneteenth has become a “jumping-off point” to deepen national discussions about racial injustice, the recent killing of black Americans and inequities in health care that have led more black people to fall ill or die from the coronavirus.
“The actual experience with Juneteenth speaks to our present … you have young people asking us to envision a different future,” she said. “This time, it feels like corporate America and colleges and universities are saying, ‘the battle is joined.’ It feels like without being asked, that the battle is joined.”
Today the country is focused not only on mourning the history of slavery or recognizing its end, but on the next steps Americans need to take to end the unjust deaths of black and brown people, Rooks said. She said the Juneteenth events taking place on college campuses and elsewhere are a good way to approach the holiday, much like how colleges and other institutions commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Faculty members at the University of Florida started Academics for Black Survival and Wellness, a multiweek initiative to teach nonblack colleagues how to support their black peers, led by Pearis Bellamy, a doctoral student studying counseling psychology. A webinar-based education program will launch on Juneteenth, with one week for black academics that focuses on wellness and rest and another week for nonblack colleagues on antiracism.
Tobin Miller Shearer, director of the African American studies program at the University of Montana, said it’s great that institutions are acknowledging and lifting up the narratives of the black community, but he’s also “cynical” about the gestures. Shearer, who is white, in part believes “this is entirely more performative unless it’s tied to actions.”
He is leading a webinar on "dismantling racism" on June 24, which has 4,000 people registered so far, and the university is introducing a new four-credit course in the fall with the same name and subject matter, he said. Shearer and his black colleagues at Montana are directing members of their campus to participate in a community event for Juneteenth in Missoula, Mont.
“I will be convinced that these institutions are not just doing performative work if a year from now they can point to multiple steps they’ve taken on campus to support African American students,” he said. “That’s what I want to see.”
Vining, who is the vice president of internal affairs for the Rice Student Association, said she may have been more cynical about the university’s lecture series if students had not received an email earlier in the week outlining specific steps Rice is taking to become more welcoming to black students. She said this indicated that the university was an institution that’s “leading the way” on addressing racism on campus and nationwide.
Rooks said while the recognition of Juneteenth by colleges may be a form of “virtue signaling,” she’s giving them the benefit of the doubt and expects to hold them to the “performative gestures” in the weeks to come.
“At the moment that these institutions and businesses decide this is it and this is the total of the conversation and not just the beginning, that’s when the disillusionment and disappointment will come in,” she said.
Conversations about acknowledging Juneteenth apparently have also occurred among local, state and national political leaders. Just this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York issued an executive order to make Juneteenth a state holiday and paid day off for state employees, and Mayor Jim Kenney of the City of Philadelphia announced city offices and facilities will be closed to commemorate the day. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2018 designating June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” but it has not yet reached the House, The New York Times reported.
Following the lead of Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, who this week put forward legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday, the Virginia Community College System’s office will be closed, and some colleges have said they also will be closed, said Jeff Kraus, assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications for the system. Southwest Virginia Community College released a statement on June 17 announcing that it would be closed today and provided a brief history of what Juneteenth is, “for those unfamiliar.”
Though Northam just acted this week to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday, Hampton University, a historically black institution in Hampton, Va., has always treated June 19 as a day of celebration and service in the surrounding community, which is home to mostly black and brown residents, said Ethlyn McQueen-Gibson, a professor of nursing and director of the university’s Center for Gerontology Excellence.
The university is steeped in black history -- it is near where the first African men and women arrived to North America as slaves in 1619 at Point Comfort and is home to the first location in the American South where the Emancipation Proclamation was read in 1863, said Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton Branch NAACP. Kanoyton said she is “extremely pleased” that Northam elevated Juneteenth to a state holiday. McQueen-Gibson, who is black, said that she finds it “just amazing” that Northam is marking the day which has been long known to the black community as their Independence Day.
“It helps educate everyone, not just in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the nation, that this holiday is just as important as the Fourth of July,” she said.
Hampton’s focus for this year’s Juneteenth is on public health and preventing the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable people, with free virus testing for community residents in partnership with local organizations such as the Hampton Branch NAACP, Urban League of Hampton Roads and Sentara Healthcare, a nonprofit health-care provider. Volunteers from the organizations and the university will be administering at least 100 tests and distributing masks to community members who may not have the means to get them, as well as distributing food with help from the Virginia Peninsula Food Bank, McQueen-Gibson said.
“We celebrate Juneteenth every day by helping our community understand their health -- that health is their wealth,” she said. “It doesn’t just begin and end with [today]. It must go beyond that. Public health is part of that … We will never end racism if we don’t position the future generations to sit at the tables where decisions are being made.”