Last week, in advance of today’s holiday, community members gathered at Northwestern’s Black House for a celebration of Juneteenth titled “From Bondage to Jubilation: Exploring the History of Juneteenth,” hosted by the Black Professionals Network.
Juneteenth — a portmanteau of the words “June” and “19th” — commemorates the date on which, in 1865, the last enslaved people in the former Confederacy were freed by Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas. Since 1866, many Black Americans have celebrated the holiday as America's true independence day, marking the end of slavery.
The event combined a celebration of Black culture with a look back at the holiday’s history. On the porch, Djembe Drummers performed, while the second floor featured a walk-through exhibition on the history of slavery, including shackles from the transatlantic slave trade.
Speakers included Black Professionals Network co-chair Tracey Gibson-Jackson, Northwestern’s president, Michael H. Schill, and keynote speaker Maudlyne Ihejirika, a now-retired Sun-Times columnist who continues to write about Black life in Chicago.
The event was also an acknowledgement and celebration of longtime African American studies librarian Kathleen Bethel, who designed a Juneteenth program and reading guide for the occasion. Bethel is retiring at the end of the summer after 41 years at Northwestern.
Gibson-Jackson, who is also the director of student organizations and activities in the Office of Student Affairs, founded the Black Professionals Network (BPN) at Northwestern in 2016. She spoke about how important the Black community at Northwestern has been to her personally, and how gratifying it has been to watch BPN grow into a 350+ member organization.
President Schill spoke both about the significance of the occasion and how much he has enjoyed fostering friendships and productive working relationships with Black leaders on campus, including faculty, staff, students and alumni. He also spoke to some of the challenges that lie ahead.
“I want to again affirm my personal commitment to diversity and equity here at Northwestern,” Schill said. “But while today is a celebration, I would be remiss if I didn't say that we are going to need your help — more than ever — as we face an uncertain landscape that's going to be created by the Supreme Court later this month.”
Though the Court may limit the use of race in college admissions when it rules on challenges to affirmative action, Schill said, he plans to work collaboratively with Northwestern’s Black community to ensure that diversity remains a priority and that Northwestern continues to develop new strategies to recruit Black students.
Elevating Juneteenth nationally
Maudlyne Ihejirika, the keynote speaker, spoke about the history of Juneteenth and Black Americans’ long struggle for freedom. She also framed her reflection in personal terms, noting that she herself did not learn about Juneteenth in school, but only came to know about it as a reporter covering Black communities in Chicago.
“It was not until I covered a Juneteenth celebration in the late 1980s — when I was well into my 20s — that I was exposed to the seminal historic events” behind the holiday, Ihejirika said.
Ihejirika said she felt embarrassed for not already knowing what Juneteenth was about as the Pan-African group that was hosting a small celebration on Chicago’s South Side explained it to her for the first time.
However, she said, the fact that she didn’t know only underscores that history is too often revisionist, and that narratives are often shaped by willful ignorance and powerful people who choose not to teach the whole truth.
That’s why marking Juneteenth as a national holiday is especially important: Because it’s an opportunity to celebrate Black culture, Black history and some of our country's ideals — like freedom — without glossing over the fact that the U.S. was built on a system of oppression that included slavery.