Juneteenth: Remembering and honoring the day slavery ended

This weekend, events on campus and across Greater New Haven will celebrate the anniversary of June 19, 1865, the day America’s final enslaved people were freed.
Juneteenth flag superimposed over a picture of Harkness Tower

Juneteenth has been commemorated in many African-American communities for more than a century, but most Americans have only recently begun learning about the history and significance of the historic day.

Juneteenth recognizes the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union Army troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the freedom of enslaved people there. While President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, enslavers in some parts of the country ignored it. 

In June 2021, President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth the first new federal holiday since President Ronald Reagan established Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Last month, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that Juneteenth (celebrated on June 19 or the closest weekday date) would be an annual university holiday for which staff will be paid or will receive compensatory time off if they must work then.

Juneteenth is a day of reflection and rejoicing, as well as a moment to acknowledge the long civil rights movement,” Salovey wrote in a message to the university community. “The holiday gives us the chance to celebrate the end of slavery; to remember the experiences, labor, and lives of enslaved people; and to recognize the contributions of members of the Black community to this country.”

In addition to celebrating the struggle for equality and remembering the horrors of slavery, Juneteenth also affords an opportunity to “commit ourselves anew to liberty and justice for all,” Kimberly Goff-Crews, University Secretary and Vice President for University Life, said in a June 13 letter to the Yale community.

While the university will be closed in observance of Juneteenth, numerous events on campus and in the greater New Haven community will offer opportunities or forums for celebrating and reflecting on the significance of the day, which many Black Americans consider a “second Independence Day.”

On Tuesday, June 21, the Yale African American Affinity Group (YAAA) will host an online lunchtime discussion titled “The Meaning of Juneteenth” at noon. The event will feature Jeffrey A. Fletcher, the owner and collector of the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum in Stratford, Conn., who will discuss the significance of Juneteenth through historical artifacts from the 1800s.

Members of the Yale community, including alumni, are invited to join with members of the broader New Haven community and surrounding towns for free events to commemorate Juneteenth and to remember and reflect on slavery’s toll on American society to this day, including the following:

Saturday, June 18, noon–6 p.m.  — The Descendants of the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment will hold its sixth annual Juneteenth remembrance — “Juneteenth New Haven 2022” — at the CT Violence Intervention Program, 230 Ashmun Street. The Harlem Renaissance is the inspiration for this year’s theme — “Juneteenth New Haven! Revival of Cultural, Personal, and Social Wellness.” The event will feature face painting, art activities, a bike ride, and health information for children. For adults, there will be information on employment opportunities, health information and health screenings, COVID-19 vaccines, and performances by local artists. The YAAA is sponsoring the event.

Saturday, June 18, 7–8 p.m., New Haven Green“Juneteenth: Full Circle,” an event curated by Hanan Hameen, founder of the Artsucation Academy Network and Official Juneteenth Coalition of Greater New Haven. It will feature a jazz performance by Jesse “Cheese” Kilpatrick Hameen II and his jazz band Elevation. Hameen is an internationally recognized jazz artist who has performed with numerous jazz legends. The event is part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, of which Yale University is the primary sponsor.

Sunday, June 19, 1–5 p.m., New Haven GreenJuneteenth Village, New Haven Green. In the spirit of Ujamaa — a Swahili word meaning “cooperative economics” or familyhood — vendors and entrepreneurs will congregate on a section of the Green, symbolizing thriving towns like historic Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, often referred to as “Black Wall Street.” Part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

Sunday, June 19, 7:30–8:30 p.m., New Haven Green — The Elder Honoring, an annual tradition and trademark of the Juneteenth Coalition of Greater New Haven. The ceremony recognizes the work, accomplishments, and dedication of “unsung” members of the Black community. The ceremony was created by and is hosted by Hameen of the Artsucation Academy Network. Part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

Earlier this week, the YAAA hosted an online discussion among members of the Yale and New Haven community about “On Juneteenth,” a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, which recounts the origins of Juneteenth and the hardships African Americans have endured since slavery.

Ways to learn more

For those who are interested in learning more about Juneteenth, Goff-Crews this week shared learning resources on her office’s website. These include discussions on the history of the new national holiday, along with YouTube videos of a talk on the racial wealth gap by U.S. Senator Cory Booker ’97 LAW and discussion of the book “The New Jim Crow” by historian Michelle Alexander, among others.

Also, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds a collection of films on American life in the 1920s recorded by African-American Baptist minister and filmmaker Rev. Solomon Sir Jones. The collection includes remarkable footage of a 1925 parade celebrating Juneteenth in Texas. The entire collection can be viewed online.

Since October 2020, the Yale and Slavery Working Group, chaired by Sterling Professor of History David Blight, has been studying Yale’s own historical roles and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition. The group shared some of findings in a major academic conference last fall, and continues to share ongoing work on its website as part of its effort to foster discussion, remembrance, and learning as both Yale and the nation continue to confront  and illuminate their past ties to slavery and abolition.

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