One year after President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, USC held an online commemoration for the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S., celebrating on Monday June 20, the public holiday date for this year.
USC President Carol Folt, who led the Zoom event said African-American “resilience and determination are what we celebrate today.”
Hosted by Greedly F. Harris, the director of the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, the event opened with Thornton student Jamilla Johnson singing the unofficial Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Folt touched on USC’s commitment to change and growth in the diversity of the campus, explaining that the number of Black undergraduate students at USC has grown 17 percent since 2016.
Folt also acknowledged the accomplishments made by various members of USC’s faculty, including Tiffany Frye, Assistant Dean of Marshall’s School of Business. Frye leads Marshall Pathways, a program that assists Black students transferring into Marshall. Because of Pathways, Folt said, the number of Black Marshall students has grown by 40 percent.
Folt also congratulated other Black Trojans who are excelling in their respective fields, including Annenberg alumna Rachel Scott, track and field stars Allyson Felix and Isaiah Jewett and professor John Brooks Slaughter, who is a pioneer in electrical engineering and higher education. She also spoke about the Center for Black Culture and Student Affairs, USC’s Race and Equity Center led by Dr. Shaun Harper and how the profile of Black History Month on USC’s campuses continues to grow.
As part of the event, USC professor Francille Rusan Wilson, the director of the Dornsife Initiative in Black Studies and Cynthia Brown, the president of USC’s Black Staff and Faculty Caucus, gave brief lectures on the rich history of Juneteenth.
“On June 19, 1865, U.S. Major-General Gordon Granger and federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to notify enslaved African-Americans in the state that they were free,” Wilson said. “This was two months after the Confederates surrendered to end the Civil War, and two and a half years after enslaved people should have been released from bondage by the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Wilson explained that June 19 has long been a day Texans have not worked, and described the day as their Fourth of July.
“A typical celebration consisted of church services, political speeches, education on voting rights, and a parade with floats and bands, and of course, a cookout,” she said.
Later in the ceremony, football player and graduate student Malcolm Epps described Juneteenth as “one of the most prestigious holidays to mankind.”
According to the Texas native, the holiday marked a new future for African Americans and “gave us opportunities that we never thought would happen.”
Panelist for the event, USC alumna and soror of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc, Barbara Solomon, who has been working at USC in some capacity since 1966, discussed the reality of Juneteenth while growing up in Houston, just 50 miles from Galveston.
“My maternal grandparents were born slaves and fled the plantation in South Carolina to Texas,” she said. “So it is very significant to me, and I am pleased that USC is taking this opportunity to celebrate.”
Another member of the sorority, Annenberg professor Miki Turner had different feelings about the holiday.
“I think if this federal law had been signed maybe before Trayvon Martin, I’d probably be in a more celebratory mood today,” she said. “But, the modern day lynchings of unarmed black and brown men and women, voter suppression, the proud boys, makes me question the intentionality of the holiday. Is it reasonable? To ask for us to celebrate the end of slavery in an era when we are experiencing this sort of heinous, regressive, renaissance in our country.”
Instead, Turner said she wants people to use Juneteenth as a day to reflect on where we have been and where we need to go.
Richard Bluthenthal, associate dean of social justice for the Keck School of Medicine, grew up in the greater Los Angeles Area, so he was not aware of Juneteenth until about 20 years ago. However, he now recognizes the holiday’s importance to the story of America.
“I think a central challenge for this country is to begin centering African-American experiences as quintessentially American,” he said “and to celebrate our highs and lows the same way we celebrate the other national groups and other experiences and personalities that the country has gone through.”
“Is it a holiday? Is it a commemoration? How does one be celebratory when thinking about a history of over 250 years of enslavement, followed by nearly 100 years of Jim Crow, followed by continued structural oppression?” asked USC’s Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer Christopher Manning.
According to Bluthenthal, it is because African-Americans are “an extraordinary people.”