A celebration, an observance, a call to action

On June 19, 1865, enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, were finally informed by Union soldiers that they were free — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and months after the Civil War had largely ended.

“This is a big part of our history,” says Shavonne Shorter, co-chairperson of BU’s President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion. “Everybody has the right to freedom. I hope people will take the opportunity to celebrate and become more informed about Juneteenth and retain the spirit of the day.”

Governor Tom Wolf has declared Friday, June 19, as Juneteenth National Freedom Day in Pennsylvania. Governor Wolf is encouraging Pennsylvanians to reflect on the importance of the state holiday and the continued need for a fair and just society. “This Juneteenth, people across Pennsylvania and the world will celebrate this important day of independence,” said Governor Wolf. “This is a moment to honor African American history and reflect on how each of us can promote equality, liberty and justice for all people.”

“In recent weeks, people around the nation have joined together to demand an end to systemic racism and oppression of African Americans,” said Gov. Wolf. “Freedom for all is not fully realized until every person is truly free. This Juneteenth we have an opportunity to unite against injustice and create lasting change that will make Pennsylvania and our nation a better place for everyone.”

In observance of Juneteenth, June 19 will be a special holiday closure for state employees under the governor’s jurisdiction, and the State System Chancellor, Dr. Daniel Greenstein, is following suit.

“Juneteenth reminds us that we have to stand up for ourselves,” adds Shorter. “If we don’t stand up for our own civil liberties, nobody is going to do that for us.”

“Everyone thinks that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, there was a big parade and everyone is equal. It didn’t happen that way,” adds Shorter. “It’s hard for people today to imagine a time before mass messaging because it’s immediate today. We’re talking two and half years for the message to reach Texas.”

“People heard, ‘I’m no longer enslaved.’ What I’ve been praying for is here. At the same time, you had this anger,” says Shorter. “For all the good that came out of being granted basic human rights, there were other moral social problems. People were not in great economic, social or political standing. We didn’t do anything to assist people in that moment.”

Shavonne Shorter

Shavonne Shorter, co-chairperson of BU’s President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, assistant professor of communication studies

In addition to being a day of celebration and remembrance, Shorter sees the Juneteenth as reminder that the fight for civil rights is ongoing.

“I’m prompted to action. What can I do, to ensure civil liberties are preserved,” says Shorter, who is also a communication studies professor. “Progress is always can be a struggle. We’re always going to strive for equity for those who have been marginalized. We need to think about everybody who’s been held down. Being a communication person, I use Facebook a lot, and I try to use that to educate and bring about awareness. I am also active in a number of nonprofit organizations that fight for social justice.”

Working with Diversity Commission co-chair Maddy Rodriguez, Shorter says that a renewed focus on celebrating diversity is on the works.

“When we tell someone when they came to our university that you’re part of our family, we need to treat them like family. We need to educate through programming, Black History Month, Native American History Month, Pride Month. We want everybody to be involved.”

And despite the COVID-19 crisis, the Commission is still actively working. “We were surveying the campus community right before the pandemic. We met yesterday with President Hanna, who wanted to know how we were doing in these moments of crisis. We’re the ones talking to students, consoling students. We had a good talk with him that was cathartic.”

“There have been so many instances of social justice moments going on right now. We’re seeing a major shift in the conversation. People are letting their values be known,” says Shorter. “We are seeing people come out as allies. It’s hope-giving.”