FIU Observes Its First Juneteenth through Education, Healing, and Celebration

Performers at the Dotson Pavilion during Freedom Day / Courtesy Laura Lopez, DEI

Michael McEwen and Elise Gregg / Staff Writers

FIU’s Modesto Maidique Campus was filled with energy on June 19, 2021, as students, staff, faculty and community members celebrated FIU’s first Juneteenth Celebration. 

FIU concluded a week of events centered on educating, healing and celebrating with a Freedom Day celebration full of music, dancing and community. It took more than a week to fully prepare for the event, focusing on serving FIU through its observance. 

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, making it the most recently declared federal holiday since Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was commemorated with his own day in 1983. The holiday is officially registered as Juneteenth National Independence Day. 

Commemorated in honor of the struggle against slavery in the United States, Juneteenth celebrates the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to announce that more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were now free. 

Although more than two years after passing the Emancipation Proclamation into law, which Abraham Lincoln signed announcing the freedom of captured slaves in 10 states, many Black Americans were surprised by the arrival of Union troops announcing that slavery had formally ended. 

The initial capability of the law was hindered most by its timing. Passed through congress as the Civil War was at its height, the rights and promises guaranteed under the Emancipation Proclamation remained null and void in what was still a Confederate south–especially so in the case of the Confederacy’s westernmost state of Texas. 

The unwillingness of owners and profiteers alike to make Black Americans aware of this reflected the degree to which chattel slavery was institutionalized in the south. 

Without formal ties to the Union –a status supported by the Confederate political elite, which enacted absolute autonomy over their territory as well as everyone within it– enslaved people in Texas remained out of the reach of abolition until the Civil War’s end. 

Juneteenth rose to cultural prominence among the Black population in the United States as the liberties established on the “second independence day” allowed, for the first time, the free movement of Black people between different parts of the country. 

A group largely restricted to the agricultural hub of the south, Black Americans were now relocating to industrial and commercial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, bringing deeply felt sentiments of history and liberation with them. 

Even as remnants of slavery remained, such as the continuation of southern sharecropping and the disenfrachisement under Jim Crow Era legislation, Black Americans rallied around the joy that Juneteenth brought. 

Concerns over racially biased police brutality against Black Americans have risen in recent years, along with wider appreciation and understanding of Juneteenth and the Black experience in general. 

Experts believe the outcry of frustration in response to the murder of George Floyd by police last summer played a particular role in motivating Americans to celebrate Juneteenth as a foundational holiday. 

According to a recent Gallup poll which surveyed Americans on the holiday, just over a third of those surveyed said that they knew “a lot” about Juneteenth, with 34% reporting knowing something about it. 

That was one aspect of Juneteenth that FIU wanted to cover: education. This was one of three themes for this year, along with celebration and healing. 

The themes were the backbone of the events planned for the week, which ranged from journaling sessions, to seminars, to the weekend celebration. 

According to Vice Provost El pagnier Hudson of FIU’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, education centered on basic awareness of the holiday itself.

“[We are] educating because many people were not aware, and still are not and so this is just moving us toward this discovery of knowledge exchanging ideas and elevating the discourse,” said Hudson. 

Celebration is equally important because it was part of the history of Juneteenth, and is an extension of the joy of freedom to this day. 

“We were on lockdown in these United States and across the country, across the world because of COVID,” Hudson said. “When those people told us we could come out, we came out shouting…that’s minimal compared to being enslaved.”

Florida Memorial University Marching Band on Freedom Day / Courtesy Laura Lopez, DEI

Although there’s much to celebrate, there’s still hurt and inequity to address. That’s why healing is necessary, and that’s why it was the final theme for FIU’s first Juneteenth. 

“There’s hurt, there’s trauma, so our hope was to offer a place for healing and we had events around that where we allow for journaling to express oneself,” said Hudson, “[and] there were sessions around healing that were beautiful, beautiful opportunities there.” 

While Hudson acknowledged that these won’t remove the hurt, she said they can alleviate it. 

“Can we do it all? Absolutely not; this was just a drop in the bucket, but it had meaning if it was [for even] two people that meant something,” Hudson said.

The celebration, a product of collaboration between faculty, staff, and students, took months to coordinate. 

“Everyone had assigned committees, and so there was the healing committee, the celebrate committee, the educate committee, and everyone contributed to their own parts,” said Laura Lopez, assistant marketing director for the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). 

For example, CAPS and Healthy Living led many of the healing events, while the Center for Leadership and the team from African and African Diaspora Studies contributed to education. 

Vice Provost Hudson on Freedom Day / Courtesy Laura Lopez, DEI

The celebration was part of the larger work that the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion does, and was recommended by SGA and faculty members part of FIU’s Equity Action Initiative about a year ago.

Although this was the first year of celebration, Hudson said celebrating Juneteenth was an initiative created last year as part of the work of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. 

“Once the division was created, part of our responsibilities were to manifest or activate some of the initiatives that were in that document so this was one of them and we were matching our words to it with our deeds and making sure that we observed it as we have noted,” said Hudson. 

The events were mainly at MMC and online, while two took place at Biscayne Bay Campus, which has a higher percentage of African American students. 

“[The BBC reunion was] a fantastic event that came as proposal from Dr. Patterson from African and African Diaspora Studies program, because she actually got her start at BBC as a faculty member, and she says that she knew a lot of the black community in FIU were a part of those early beginnings of the BBC campus,” Lopez said.

And though other events were virtual due to COVID-19, Lopez said this made the celebration more accessible.

“Yes COVID was a factor, but also doing virtual [events] really allowed us to open it up to other folks, not necessarily the university community,” said Lopez. 

With many students and staff off-campus for the summer or working remotely for other reasons, the virtual events helped Juneteenth reach a variety of people in different spaces.  

One of FIU’s virtual education events for Juneteenth / Facebook

At the heart of the week-long celebration was the need to serve FIU and recognize its African American community. 

“It’s American history,” said Hudson. “It was not taught in K-12, in any of my books. I remember Plymouth Rock, I remember those pilgrims, Christopher Columbus, but never Juneteenth.” 

Hudson said FIU’s mission is to encourage lifelong learning, as well as serving its diverse body of students: as such, Juneteenth is crucial to that mission.

“Just the ability to have a conversation we had not had before, to be educated in a place and space that we had not been educated before, I think was really important in terms of why we celebrated here at FIU,” Hudson said. 

FIU’s first inaugural Juneteenth celebration was filled with eagerness from everyone involved, with energy and enthusiasm that will carry over to next year. 

“People were contributing so many wonderful ideas right, so whatever didn’t get done this year, we can certainly carry over to next year,” said Hudson. 

President Biden also made Juneteenth a federal holiday the week of FIU’s celebration, which Hudson said made it feel complete.

“That was just icing on the cake,” said Hudson. “And of course, for that to have happened during the week of Juneteenth was just gold.”

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