Every year on June 19th, Black communities celebrate Black culture, music, art, and reflect on the shared history and ongoing fight for racial justice and equity. Today marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth.
June 19th, coined Juneteenth, is the holiday commemorating the effective end to slavery in the United States. Juneteenth comes from the combination of “June” and “nineteenth”, the day in 1865 in which federal troops ensured freedom to the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, abolishing slavery nearly 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. June 19th has since been observed as a day of remembrance and celebration of Black culture, achievement, and history for the past 155 years.
In many of the early celebrations of Juneteenth, Black communities were met with resistance in their efforts to come together and were often prohibited to use public property for celebration. However, as Black Americans became landowners, land was bought and dedicated for Juneteenth festivities. As time went on, these celebrations grew, but by the early 1900s, activities declined due to economic and cultural barriers. At that time, the history of slavery was scarcely emphasized in schools, and there was nearly no mention of the emancipation in Galveston on June 19th, 1865. The Great Depression forced many people into cities to find work, and employers seldom granted time off for those to celebrate Juneteenth. In the 50’s and 60’s, participation in celebrations increased during the Civil Rights Movement and efforts were focused heavily on activism surrounding voting rights and other civil rights for Black Americans.
This year’s celebrations will be taking the form of parades, gatherings, marches, activism, prayer, as well as virtual opportunities. More than ever, virtual opportunities have become essential to ensure that all can participate in the celebrations while still observing safety guidelines around COVID-19. While providing virtual access to ensure inclusion is a win, it also highlights the reality of our current situation and marks another pivotal moment in the ongoing fight for racial equity. The COVID-19 pandemic and most recent acts of police violence have once again laid bare persistent, systemic racial inequities in this country.
Across the country, Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for disproportionately high shares of infections, fatalities, occupational hazards for essential workers, and lower initial rates of testing. In DC specifically, Wards with predominantly Black populations are being hit disproportionately, both economically and in COVID-19 cases. Black individuals make up nearly 50% of confirmed COVID-19 cases and 74% of COVID-19 related deaths, while only making up 46% of the DC population.
Serious complications and fatality rates are also higher for patients with pre-existing chronic conditions. “Black residents in our city face a disproportionate burden of diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart, and respiratory diseases, and obesity,” Christopher J. King, chair of the Georgetown University’s department of health systems administration, said in a statement. “These health disparities result from long-standing injustices and make the African American community much more vulnerable to a highly infectious virus like COVID-19.” Today’s racial inequities are long embedded in America’s history of slavery and are evident in the stark systemic inequities in food security, employment, education, wealth, criminal justice, healthcare, housing, and police brutality that Black Americans face. Not only do these inequities impact the social determinants of health and access to care, but they also compound to impact one’s epigenetics and health trajectory over the life course. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call for many in seeing these disproportionate effects.
In the global mourning of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black Americans who have been murdered at the hands of systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us of the dual significance of Juneteenth. While June 19th, 1865 was a day of liberation and a symbol of progress in American history, today, Juneteenth is also a reminder that “nobody is free until everyone is free”, and that we still have far to go on the path to racial equity. As we fight for equity and justice, all lives won’t matter until Black lives matter. In this fight, Juneteenth will continue to serve as a symbol of resistance.
But a question remains, why don’t we learn about Juneteenth more in school?
For most students, the Emancipation Proclamation is the learned event when discussing the abolishment of slavery in the United States. So why aren’t we talking about Juneteenth in school? The Emancipation Proclamation is emphasized in teaching because it paints a narrative of benevolent white people “granting” freedom, while simultaneously washing over the active and resistant role that so many people played in fighting for freedom. This draws an important parallel to the active response we are seeing in the wake of the current injustices, and how these efforts are not new, but rather built on a longstanding history of a struggle for freedom.
Mackenzie Jones, TGP’s Program Manager and former educator, writes:
“Revisionist ‘white-washing’ of history has been perpetuated throughout everyone’s lifetime and was also my experience in school, but I think it hit me harder when I started teaching middle school History and English myself. Suddenly, I was the one who was asking students to learn something that, in the curriculum and textbooks, I knew was inaccurate and incomplete. Obviously an added layer of this was that I was a white educator in a school serving almost entirely Black students; I knew that each day I could either be perpetuating or dismantling the systems that have been created to back and support this white-washing of history, in addition to the multitude of other ways the school system is oppressive (i.e. school to prison pipeline and more). The lack of explicit instruction on history like Juneteenth is a part of this white-washing of history and I think it’s important that we both acknowledge how harmful it has been to leave things like this out of our instruction and also turn to action to ensure the next generation doesn’t have the same experience.”
In the US, history books are most often written from a revisionist white perspective, further perpetuating a lack of true understanding of our country’s crucial Black history. Many Americans celebrate Independence Day as July 4th, when the American colonies declared independence from Britain. But in actuality, enslaved people still had to wait 90 years for this freedom in the newly established United States. This is why there are widespread calls for Juneteenth to be granted a federal holiday of independence, reflection, and acknowledgement of this country’s history of racial inequality.
In today’s climate, education, reflection, discussion, and advocacy is crucial to facilitating change.
As a wrestler at American University, Elijah Murphy has exhibited incredible tenacity, leadership, and success. Off the mat, he has been a crucial member to The Grassroot Project’s health education programming, and in the wake of movements advocating for racial equity, Elijah has been facilitating crucial conversations. On Instagram, he has been sharing his thoughts on systemic racism and reflecting on his experiences as a Black man and student-athlete alongside wrestler Jahi Jones from the University of Maryland.
“The recent events in this country and the conversations surrounding them has made me feel a myriad of emotions. To me, it has appeared that many people were not aware of or did not believe in the existence of the covert racism that is deeply embedded in the framework of our country and were treating the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor & Ahmaud Arbery as isolated incidences of police brutality and overt racism. Ultimately, I decided to use the platform that I have to attempt to educate on the existence of systemic racism and the implications that it has on nearly every single facet of the lives of the Black community and other POC. This has included posting Instagram stories, and Facebook posts filled with information and conducting Instagram/Facebook live sessions to facilitate discussion about these topics as I try to share my own perspective, as well as things I’ve experienced and learned. The amount of support I’ve received is almost overwhelming, and I am grateful. However, these uncomfortable conversations are only a mere step in the direction that is needed forchange to finally come. Consistent and sustainable action must follow. The significance of this year’s Juneteenth, in my eyes, is to continue to raise awareness to these issues and about a history that has so much of an implication on the struggles that we continue to be met with today. Let us continue to educate ourselves and those around us, while also taking actionable steps in our community and beyond.”
Tune into Elijah’s Instagram Live tonight at 7PM titled, “When Will We Change.”
Elijah is also using what he studies in school, psychology, to enhance TGP’s mental health promotion programs to think about the mental health effects of systemic racism. He was involved in the mental health pilot and is now taking a closer look at the lens in which TGP educates youth about mental health. It is imperative that we ALL take a deeper look in the way in which we educate youth about these topics.
So how can you observe Juneteenth today?
Many States, including New York and Virginia, have just named Juneteenth an official state holiday, so use your voice by writing to your local city council or governor to advocate for the creation of Juneteenth as an official state holiday.
Share the history of Juneteenth with those around you. Reflect through discussion, education, and introspection. Celebrate (don’t appropriate) Black history, achievement, music, food, culture, and its contribution to our country’s past and present. Amplify Black voices, causes, organizations, and businesses. Advocate for racial equity, and engage in meaningful dialogues with those around you about systemic racism.
For a link of TGP compiled racial justice resources click here.
Other Juneteenth events based in DC linked here.