As part of the 155th Juneteenth celebration this past Friday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, the Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights hosted over 350 attendees via Zoom to listen to Prof. Ervin Jordan, a research archivist at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, discuss “Juneteenth and Its Historical Significance in George Floyd’s America.”
This year, the University recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for employees of the University’s academic division, following an announcement issued June 17 by University President Jim Ryan. The paid holiday did not extend to designated University employees required to maintain operations.
The first half hour was a presentation about Juneteenth’s origins and ways to celebrate the day — such as reading a book about the holiday or eating traditional soul foods. Juneteenth combines the words “June” and “19th” to commemorate the day when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was adopted by Texas to liberate the last enslaved laborers in America on June 19th, 1865. Lincoln’s proclamation was first stated on Jan. 1, 1863, but the Confederacy did not follow the president’s declaration. The Confederacy’s reluctance to stop the practice of slavery forced Union troops to fight in every rebelling state in order to enforce Lincoln’s word.
Jordan noted that this event did not end slavery alone, as Congress still had to adopt the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery and was not ratified in Texas until 1870. He continued to say that liberated enslaved people needed more than just this amendment.
“Emancipation was not enough,” Jordan 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.”
The presentation then moved to the present day, as Jordan talked about Juneteenth’s significance in the wake of George Floyd’s death that resulted from a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. This incident launched protests across the nation — including several in Charlottesville — demanding racial equality and social justice.
“This solemn Juneteenth is indicative that 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.”
A public question and answer period focused on how to celebrate Juneteenth today, including whether a statue should be erected to honor the day. Jordan suggested that Confederate statues in Charlottesville should be removed through legal processes and new monuments — such as those honoring Black history in America — should be erected in their place. He also noted that, since statues cost several million dollars to commission, the funds could be used to instead improve community programs such as education.
During the event, Jordan suggested that the University host a community gathering at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in the future. He said this will allow community members to discuss the significance of Juneteenth and get children involved by having them do research projects and presentations that explain the day’s importance.
One question at the heart of the conversation was whether the country is in the middle of a turning point in American race relations and how the momentum from the protests could be kept up. Jordan affirmed that we are in the midst of a significant moment due to the violent deaths of Black Americans — whose names include Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others — and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year.
“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,” Jordan said. “No one knows whether all this will bear fruit, but it is at least a start.”
The community also inquired as to what efforts the University should take to combat racism and advance racial equity. Jordan commended the University’s recently launched racial equity task force that includes Ian Solomon, the dean of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Kevin McDonald, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion; and Barbara Brown Wilson, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and the faculty director of The Equity Center. The group’s purpose is to identify concrete ideas to improve the experience of minority communities.
However, Jordan also noted that there are parts of the University that resist change, so the University must devise a plan to actually promote equality in practice.
“The best thing U.Va. can do is treat African Americans equally,” Jordan said. “Anything less is mere lip service and window dressing … if U.Va. wants to continue to do the right thing, they must consider that African Americans are fellow employees and citizens.”