College Holds 3rd Annual Juneteenth Celebration

June 28, 2019

Juneteenth, which is celebrated annually on June 19, is the oldest national commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It has been celebrated by African American families for generations. Members of the William James College Community have regularly gathered to mark the occasion for the past several years. This year, the community again came together in the atrium for speeches, reflections, music, “food, conversation, fellowship, and friendship.”

Shani Dowd, a longtime member of the William James College Board of Trustees and director of Culture InSight, an operating program of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, presented the history of Juneteenth, reminding all that there’s a popular misconception that President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed all the slaves in the United States. “That was actually not true,” she said. “We tell the story, ‘Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863,’ but Lincoln didn’t actually free all the slaves.”

The Proclamation only included states which were in rebellion against the Union, thereby excluding Northern states which still had legal slavery as well as Southern states which were already occupied by Union troops. Dowd explained that this was a tactical decision to weaken the power of the Confederacy and encourage African Americans to join the North and take up arms against the plantation owners. Further, she said, Texas, which was part of the confederacy but was considered a “non-combat state,” decided the Proclamation simply did not apply. Texas landowners, slave owners, and government officials deliberately decided not to enforce it or tell enslaved people they were now free.

On June 19th, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with the information that slavery was illegal, and that people who had been enslaved were now free. However, soldiers also announced to the enslaved people in Texas that they had to stay where they were and work for wages. The amount of wages was not defined, and plantation owners often charged rent equal to wages, meaning situations changed little if at all.

“The Holiday of Juneteenth has always been a kind of double-edged sword for us,” Dowd said. “It’s a celebration, for sure, that finally we were no longer enslaved in this country that we didn’t want to be in in the first place…that for the first time since the late 1600’s Black people of African descent were legally not allowed to be enslaved, but at the same time we knew we were being kept in different kinds of bondage.”

Dowd added, “People think slavery was such a long time ago, and they treat it as if it was back with the Greeks and Romans. My grandfather was born 10 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. That’s how close we are. He grew up during Reconstruction, as a Black man in the South. I grew up under Jim Crow in the South. When you think about how far back slavery is, look at me. It’s not that far.”

Today, there are 45 other states, including Massachusetts, that acknowledge the day as having significance, but Texas is the only state that celebrates Juneteenth as an official holiday. Student speaker LaNisha Allen, a student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Master’s program, and others at the program would like to see that change.

Allen said her family recognized Juneteenth as a “remembrance, and acknowledgment of our ancestors who made it possible for us to live life more peacefully than they ever could.” She said parades, cookouts, and gatherings “are a start,” but that the holiday should be recognized more broadly.

“If we want to capitalize on change and equality, people should spend time in communities with people of color acknowledging us and our world, prompting ways to produce more change. I want people from other cultures to immerse themselves in our traditions and lifestyles in the same ways Black people have done every day for our entire lives,” she said. “We should have school traditions where students of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to eat, celebrate, and learn with people of color. Black people should be celebrated and honored within their workplace and academic institutions because we are faced with oppression daily and carrying burdens of the world on our backs wherever we are.”

Elana Wolkoff, assistant professor of School Psychology, associate director of field education for the School Psychology Department, and a member of the Juneteenth celebration event planning committee, said “There are very few White people who know what Juneteenth is, and many Black people who aren’t African American who also don’t. The end of slavery in the United States shouldn’t just be a celebration for African American people. This is a celebration for our whole country. Slavery is an abominable part of our history, and the fact that it ended is something that we all should celebrate.”

Marice Nichols, office manager for the College and also a member of the planning team, said the event is intentionally designed to bring together people from all different cultures and backgrounds. “No matter what culture people belong to, when we all come together to try to better understand each other, the more educated we can all become,” she said.

Event attendance has been strong each year, but the hope is that it will continue to grow. “We really want this annual celebration to be such so that nobody will graduate from William James College without knowing what Juneteenth is, and so that people who see or attend our celebration recognize that this is something that we as a College and a community value,” Wolkoff said.

Stephanie Santana, a first-year School Psychology student who attended the event said, "Days like this are important. I hope to continue to expose myself to this knowledge as I grow in my field and be able to pass my knowledge onto the students I work with in the future.”

William James College is proud to offer a concentration in African and Caribbean Mental Health through the Center for Multicultural and Global Mental Health (CMGMH). In addition, the Black Mental Health Graduate Academy recruits, mentors, and supports Black students in Master’s and Doctoral degree programs for mental health counseling and psychology. CMGMH and The Academy represent the College's commitment to decreasing racial/ethnic disparities by diversifying the mental health workforce and providing support to historically marginalized and underserved groups.