Celebrating Juneteenth - a new federal holiday

To the Eastern Michigan University community:

Yesterday, in action that has been decades in the making, President Joe Biden signed into law legislation that makes Juneteenth, June 19, a national holiday. Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday in the United States since the addition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

The action by President Biden follows unanimous approval of the legislation this week by the U.S. Senate, and near unanimous action by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It also follows the decisions of many states and municipalities in recent years that declared Juneteenth a state/city holiday, including such actions by the City of Ypsilanti in April of this year and the State of Michigan in June 2020.

Juneteenth now joins the list of legal public holidays that includes MLK Jr. Day, New Year’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The signing of the legislation, and tomorrow’s first official federal Juneteenth national holiday, provides us with a further purpose to celebrate and reflect on the importance of June 19 in United States history. It is the persistence, perseverance and tenacity of many that led us to this special moment in the nation’s history.

Juneteenth marks the arrival of Union Army soldiers in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, with news that enslaved people were now free. The holiday was initially celebrated in Texas before the significance of the day became well known nationally.

Many people associate the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863, with the formal ending of slavery. However, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which formally abolished slavery, wasn’t passed by Congress until January 1865 and was ratified later that year.

This year’s Juneteenth is important beyond being a new national holiday. As we emerge to our new post-pandemic reality, it is an important time to reflect on the deep challenges and the important dialogue underway across our nation and here in our community about racial inequality and social justice. The pandemic further highlighted ongoing systemic racial inequities.

We know that on our campus and throughout society, we have much more work to do. Eastern Michigan is committed to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion on our campus and to challenging institutional racism at all levels of society, including here at the University. This commitment is part of our history and our mission, and it will be part of our future. An example of this ongoing effort is a project underway this summer led by the Faculty Senate Task Force on Campus Climate, Race and Diversity, supported by the Office of the Provost and the Division of Communications, to prepare video modules examining topics of diversity, equity and inclusion to promote best instructional practices. 

I encourage everyone in our campus community to take some time over the weekend to reflect, listen, learn and acknowledge the history, sacrifices, and achievements of Black citizens and the current actions we all must take to create meaningful and lasting change.

Several events are taking place in our community and around the area tomorrow that will provide a meaningful connection to the importance of the day. 

Unveiling of two new Black Lives Matter murals in downtown Ypsilanti

Starting at 11 a.m. tomorrow, a celebration will take place in the parking lot behind Puffer Reds on West Michigan Ave. It will include live music, dancing, and shopping with local Ypsilanti vendors. Two 260-foot Black Lives Matter murals in different parts of the city will be unveiled. One stretches across South Washington Street between Ferris Street and Michigan Avenue. The second is at the Riverside Park entry driveway off of Cross Street. Each bright yellow mural is made up of 18-foot letters. You can learn more on the event Facebook page.

Buy Black Juneteenth Pop-Up Shop

From 3 to 7 p.m. tomorrow, visit the Buy Black Juneteenth Pop-Up Shop at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, located at 100 Market Place. Event organizers encourage you to celebrate Black excellence by supporting local Black businesses in the Washtenaw County area. More information can be found on their event page.

Ann Arbor Juneteenth march and celebration

From 10 a.m. to noon tomorrow, the City of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Branch of the NAACP will host an in-person one-mile walk starting at Fuller Park. The march will end at Wheeler Park, where there will be refreshments, conversations and information. At 1 p.m., a virtual program will be broadcast on CTN and viewable on YouTube. More information can be found on the Ann Arbor event information page.

Events are happening in communities across southeast Michigan and in other parts of the state. However you decide to celebrate Juneteenth, I hope you will reflect on this momentous day in our nation’s history, and the significant work that remains to be done to bring racial equality and social justice to Black citizens in our community, state and nation.

James Smith, Ph.D.