Dear CSU Campus Community,
Today is June 19, known as “Juneteenth” within the Black American community since the late 1800’s, when the date emerged as the first nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of Black slavery in the United States.
The call for all Americans this year is for us to educate ourselves about the significance of Juneteenth. As the Founding Director of the National Museum for African America History, Lonnie Bunch III, says simply in the first moments of this new video, “If you think about American culture, the most important factors that have shaped who we are have been the impact of slavery and the desire for people to be free.”
Black enslaved people were legally freed in America on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But for complicated reasons—including entrenched racism—that you can read more about here, Black enslaved people in Texas were not officially free until June 19, 1865.
Thus we have Juneteenth, “our country’s second independence day.”
I’ve been educating myself about Juneteenth this week, and also calling on what I learned about the Black American experience just a year or so ago from reading The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Black migration from the American South to the north and west in the decades following the Civil War. (If this book isn’t on your reading list already, I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
What I am struck by even in just scratching the surface of this piece of American history is that the date celebrated by many Black Americans as their “independence day” is not the date when the first enslaved people were legally freed, but the date when the last enslaved people were legally freed. The significance of this impulse by the entire community is so powerful, because it clearly affirms that changing things for some people but not all is not enough. True, lasting, meaningful change must be felt by all those impacted.
We have been hearing this same call from from protesters, scholars, activists and our own friends, colleagues and loved ones in recent weeks. They—and we—have had enough with small changes, with gestures and attempts and promises that don’t make it to fruition, just as the promise of freedom from enslavement did not make it to fruition for all Blacks in this country until more than two and half years after it was first promised.
I have heard from some in our community that one way CSU can affirm our commitment to meaningful change is to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for all employees; I’ve also heard from others, including Black scholars, that a paid day off will not necessarily prompt the personal reflection and commitment to anti-racism that our country needs all of us to do and to make.
Juneteenth is currently recognized as a ceremonial holiday in most states, including in Colorado, and has been a paid state holiday in Texas since 1980. This year, as part of the growing commitment across the country to truly grapple with our country’s racial history, many other states, cities, businesses, and communities have announced that they will be observing Juneteenth as an official paid holiday. I promise that we will consider this, taking into account both the fact that most of our students are not with us in June to benefit from any Juneteenth activities and the fact that we are an institution deeply invested in education—including our own.
This year, I know there are Juneteenth events planned both here on campus and in Denver, by our students and by other members of our community. To all of you who have planned events: Thank You. The work of activism is often thankless and just hard, logistically and practically. Your commitment to doing this work now, during the COVID pandemic, makes all of us proud and deeply grateful. I also know—because I know this community—that it will inspire others to join you and to follow your example.
Finally, in recognition of Juneteenth, I leave you all with the words of the extraordinary poet Claudia Rankine. In this poem, she reflects on the extraordinary confluence of this moment, between a global crisis and a national one. Read it this weekend. You will not regret it.