“The past is not done with us yet” – Juneteenth in the 21st century

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On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved people in states that had seceded from the union. It would be another two and a half years, however, before Texas, the final holdout, adopted the Proclamation and liberated the last of its enslaved laborers on June 19, 1865. Since then, the day has been celebrated by African Americans as “Juneteenth.”

This year, the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights hosted a virtual talk, “Juneteenth and Its Historical Significance in George Floyd’s America,” by Professor Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., Research Archivist of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Over 350 people attending via Zoom heard Professor Jordan speak about the long road to freedom for African Americans. “Emancipation was not enough,” he said. “To tangibly secure their new freedoms, African Americans needed citizenship and voting rights, freedom of mobility and immigration, wage employment and military service, land ownership, reuniting of families, freedom of education and worship, and equal access to public spaces.”

Jordan spoke about how the inherent promise of Emancipation in the 19th century still has not been fully realized in 21st century America. “The past is not done with us yet,” Jordan said. “Juneteenth has become an inspirational worldwide commemoration that enlightens us in ways its first beneficiaries never envisioned. Five generations after the Civil War, we continue to challenge and confront systemic racism in George Floyd’s America.”

Jordan answered a range of questions from attendees about ways to celebrate Juneteenth and the significance of the protests ignited by the recent violent death of George Floyd. Jordan suggested the possibility of the University hosting community gatherings at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center as a way of allowing community members to discuss the significance of Juneteenth and to get children involved with research and presentations explaining the day’s importance. Citing the recent police killings of others besides Floyd, Jordan said, “I am heartened by the fact that many predominantly-white institutions and organizations seem to be making more sincere efforts to address racial policies and practices and racial history in this country. No one knows whether all this will bear fruit, but it is at least a start.”

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