A day for reflection, learning and action

The promise of Juneteenth has yet to be fully realized

Look for it in the history books, where you’ll spot it toward the end of the chapter on the U.S. Civil War.

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June 19, 1865.

AKA Juneteenth.

That’s the date, says University of Denver history professor Susan Schulten, when “Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston Bay and read a military order informing Texans that the U.S. government intended to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.”

In reading that order, Granger brought the two-year-old proclamation’s promise — that “all persons held as slaves are and henceforward shall be free” — to one of the last Confederate states to come under Union control. 

For enslaved Texans, June 19 represented their introduction to one of American history’s most important documents. Issued on Jan. 1, 1863, the proclamation launched the beginning of the end to the country’s original sin, if not to its ramifications. It would take the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865 to abolish slavery, at least on paper, in every far-flung corner of the country.

In the 155 years since Granger’s arrival in the Lone Star State, the story of Juneteenth has been noted by African Americans across the country. But outside Black communities, the day has largely languished in obscurity. If anything, it’s the answer to a trivia question on game night, a footnote in a narrative of progress and setbacks and dreams deferred.

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Apryl Alexander

The University of Denver hopes to help change that, bringing the day and its significance to the fore by declaring Juneteenth a paid holiday for faculty and staff. In a June 18 email announcing Juneteenth’s new on-campus status, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner called on the DU community to use it as a day “for reflection, learning and action.”

“It’s time, right?” says Apryl Alexander, endorsing the news about DU’s new holiday. An associate professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, Alexander argues that the rest of the country should follow DU’s example. Juneteenth, she says, represents “a full celebration of Black liberation and Black love.” As a tribute to inclusivity and freedom, it should be observed throughout the country, as should days commemorating the contributions of Indigenous people and the many immigrants who helped build the country.

Juneteenth in context

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Dajah Brooks

National holiday or not, Dajah Brooks, a Daniels College of Business student who serves as vice president of Undergraduate Student Government, has celebrated the day all her life. Along with annual anniversary commemorations of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, it’s so notable to her family that the various branches schedule reunions around it.

To her mind, Juneteenth doesn’t just call on Americans to celebrate the waning of slavery; it also asks them to remember the many episodes and events that have betrayed the proclamation’s promise. Take the Tulsa massacre, which looms particularly large in Brooks’ imagination. For two days bridging that May and June, a white mob assaulted the Oklahoma city’s Greenwood District, then the wealthiest Black community in the United States. As the mayhem and murder intensified, Brooks’ great, great, great grandmother fled the neighborhood for Tennessee. And so, back in Oklahoma for the summer, Brooks joined her family in supporting a project commemorating the tragedy.

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Cameron Simmons

“Because they are [observing] the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre next year, my family and I made a donation to help build the memorial that’s going up,” she says. Next Juneteenth, centennial celebrations will take center stage in Brooks’ hometown.

June 19 resonates just as profoundly for alumnus Cameron Simmons (BA ’16, MS ’17), who now serves as assistant director of undergraduate admission at DU. Juneteenth, he says, offers “a way to show pride and joy and to celebrate freedom.” That’s freedom “in quotation marks,” he adds, his eye for irony fixed on recent headlines and the daily life of Black Americans.

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Art Jones

For Arthur Jones, who joined the University’s faculty in 1991 and who, until his recent retirement, served in an array of leadership posts, Juneteenth offers a reminder that racism and hatred have a too-firm grip on the nation’s soul. Like so many Black people, he knows that from personal experience. From his time in the service, when, as an out-of-uniform officer riding his bike, a young sailor heaped invective on him when Jones attempted to cycle onto the naval base. From a stroll across a university campus where he saw, hanging from a dorm, a sign advertising SPONGE. “What’s that?” he asked a white friend. The answer came only after much prodding and then sheepishly: “It stands for the Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything.”

With those episodes and countless others in mind, Jones considers Juneteenth an opportunity “to reflect on the ways in which our country has been so afraid to confront its full history. There is just so much ugliness in the country, and the country hasn’t wanted to face it.” 

A day to face history

Jones’ reminder resounds powerfully with DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner.

“Our country and our campus have never fully recognized the significance of Juneteenth,” he says. “It is time to stand on the side of justice. To do better, to be better, we must empathize with all victims of injustice and strive to understand emancipation, equity and freedom.”

The decision to declare the holiday was, for Haefner, a classic “no brainer.” Observing the Black Lives Matter protests in Denver and elsewhere, learning about the murders of Floyd and Colorado’s own Elijah McClain, and hearing from DU’s Black faculty, staff and students, Haefner says he realized it was time for the University to support its rhetoric and aspirations with action.  

“Understanding and empathy simply aren’t enough,” he says. “They have to be backed by concrete plans with measurable outcomes, because our credibility is at stake. We pride ourselves on our investment in our students and community, and we have to ensure that every one of us feels they can flourish and be their best selves at DU.”

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Rosalynn Feagins

Rosalynn Feagins, DU’s director of financial analysis, looks forward to those forthcoming plans and initiatives. In her 19 years as a staff member, she has watched the University grapple with equity issues and fall short of its vision for full inclusivity.

“The [Juneteenth] news [sparked] a combination of shock, proudness and solace,” Feagins explains in an email conversation. “Shock due to never expecting such a bold move by the University. Proud because it is the right thing to do to ‘lean in’ on this pivotal moment as people of all stripes raise their voices relative to racial injustices, unequal treatment under the law and the challenges of diversity, equity and inclusion in all organizations. And solace in that it was comforting in the current period of heightened tensions to be able to reflect on current events and the years leading up to this pivotal moment.”

Alexander, likewise, hailed the Juneteenth news with a metaphorical round of applause. A member of Black Lives Matter 5280, she’d spent the previous weeks demanding police accountability on the front lines of Denver’s protests. She was more than ready for some uplifting news.  

“I was completely surprised,” she recalls. “My alma mater, Virginia Tech, announced that they were celebrating it, and I was really excited about that. I [talked] to a colleague, and the colleague said, ‘What if DU did that!’ And it was like 16 hours later that she texted me: ‘Oh My God, Apryl, look what happened.”

Josie Ampaw was also taken aback. A graduate student pursuing dual master’s degrees in social work and curriculum and instruction, she’s the daughter of parents who emigrated to the United States from Ghana. While completing her undergraduate studies in the Golden State, she learned about the Black community’s long and ongoing struggle for liberation.

“To be very honest, I was pretty surprised by the fact that DU declared Juneteenth an official DU holiday,” she explains via an email conversation. “I grew up learning about African history and culture more than African American history. I truly was not introduced to Juneteenth until my first year of my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. … [There,] my friends, especially in the Black Student Union and Pan African Student Union, would always host events that centered around Juneteenth. Partaking in their celebrations was a privilege and [offered] a space I know I was welcomed into. I know I still have a great deal to learn about African American history and I always want to be an ally to African Americans whose ancestors survived slavery.” 

For his part, Jones, fresh off a stint as the University’s interim vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion and equity, saw the announcement as a conversation catalyst and a harbinger of progress. “We have had these really little baby steps around real diversity and inclusion. Really little baby steps,” he says of the University. But now, with the headlines highlighting so many inequities, the University has a window of opportunity for making substantive changes. Even so, he adds, it would be easy to squander that opportunity — to lapse into platitudes and promises.

Like Jones, Simmons was both pleased and optimistic that the move can be parlayed into positive change. But, with the mindset of an unapologetic — not to mention candid — contrarian, he greeted the news with as many questions as kudos.

“It was a great step forward for the University, and it brought a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “But I had to be reflective on, ‘Why now?’ Why, all of a sudden, in 2020, are we recognizing a day for the emancipation of Black slaves? Is it a step that we took because of the current cultural climate? That’s not bad, but how do we be proactive in our attempt to make life better for Black faculty, staff and students? And how do we bring knowledge, camaraderie and understanding to a date that is very pivotal for a lot of Black families and communities, without having to have a national crisis of racism going on? It really forced me to start to think about those things and how I could be accountable to helping the University be forward thinking, not reactive.”

As founder and president of Black@DU, a group of Black faculty and staff members, Simmons has a list of substantive changes at the ready. How about a dedicated space where DU’s Black community can meet and mingle? How about significant financial relief for students challenged to afford a DU education? How about campus climate initiatives that educate all community members about Black history, about the lived experiences of Black people today?    

Reflection, learning and action

Of Haefner’s three suggestions for Juneteenth pursuits — reflection, learning and action — the first priority surely goes to reflection. It’s the precursor, after all, to real learning and meaningful action.

But what does reflection look like? How should we think about Juneteenth?

Feagins offers this on-ramp to rumination: “Imagine the United States not taking time to pause and reflect on the happenings surrounding 9/11. The pain, the trauma, the victims and the impending years of hurtful memories. Replace 9/11 with Juneteenth, its meaning and how it came to be. That is what I’d encourage people to reflect on. The 400-plus years of the enslavement of millions of Black people, their treatment, the trauma it caused and the years of suffering then and now. The impact on the victims, the families and their descendants.” 

But don’t stop there, she says. “I’d also encourage all people to reflect on how they can contribute toward the accounting of those [four centuries] of abuse.  While one doesn’t have the power to change history, everyone can learn from it and do their part individually to change the future.”  

Although he has witnessed decades of thwarted attempts to address inequities, Jones urges the DU community to think about how to capitalize on momentum.

“One of the things that has always fascinated me is how change happens. When I was growing up in the 1950s, all of the Black people I knew just assumed Jim Crow was going to be around forever,” he says. But then, in quick succession, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Jones detects a similar energy and thirst for reform right now, both on campus and in the country at large. The murder of George Floyd might — just might — trigger meaningful change. “People were really shaken by that,” he says of the video showing Floyd’s eight minutes and 46 seconds under the pressure of a policeman’s knee. But only time will tell whether enough people were shaken enough.  

Alexander is also cautiously optimistic and suggests that Americans reflect on some broad but essential questions: “What’s our definition of freedom, and what are some future steps to achieving full freedom?” Remember, she adds, freedom isn’t possible if you live in crippling fear for your physical or emotional well-being, whether that’s fear of the police, of an abusive spouse or of daily slights and aggression. 

Perhaps the last word belongs to Simmons, who urges members of the DU community to cherish the freedom of Black people as much as they cherish, say, Independence Day.

“We keep saying the same thing,” Simmons says. “We keep saying Black lives matter, and yet change has not yet come.”

No, Haefner agrees, not yet. Not nearly enough change and not fast enough. But stay tuned.

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