Why Juneteenth Matters at Predominately White Institutions
Dr. Jared Burkholder, history professor and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Grace has put together some thoughts to share with us to help us learn, reflect and humble ourselves in the observance of Juneteenth.
He explains why Juneteenth Matters … even (or especially so) at Predominately White Institutions.
Today is Juneteenth — a day that has been celebrated among African-American communities since the nineteenth century. It commemorates the 1865 public declaration in the state of Texas, that all enslaved individuals – in Texas as well as the other confederate states – were legally free. This new reality was the result of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln had set forth two years before. Texas, however, was far removed from the heart of the south, and although it took longer to implement the proclamation, newly freed slaves embraced the day as one to remember. The very next year they began to mark the date. Since then, commemorating the “day of emancipation” has moved from a regional celebration in Texas to a holiday celebrated by many Black Americans across the nation. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that the holiday began to receive more visibility. In recent years, almost all the states in the U.S., and many major companies, have officially recognized the holiday.
Still, many Americans know little about the date. Even in the White House, aides to Donald Trump needed to enlighten the president as to why it was problematic to hold his first campaign rally since the pandemic on June 19th in a city that had once witnessed a horrendous massacre of Black Americans by White mobs. Unfortunately, the lack of understanding about race, the experiences of Blacks, and the fight for equality extends far beyond the White house. Tellingly, the controversy has left many Americans at a loss and sparked a steady stream of articles explaining the basics of Juneteenth to White Americans.
This speaks to the reality that, despite ongoing efforts to improve K-12 education, many Americans do not know enough about the history of people of color to help foster the kind of unity and empathy that would benefit us all at a time like this. Indeed, I should know, because even as a college history professor, there have been times when I have been part of the problem. I have had to come to grips with the fact that I continually need to learn from historians of color, go deeper in my understanding of race, and integrate this history into my classes. It is especially important for a White professor, teaching at a predominately white institution (PWI), to be intentional about bringing Black voices and perspectives into the classroom – not to include token representatives or just to present alternative points of view, but to provide a narrative that more accurately reflects the reality of diversity in America. Far from being what many might dismiss as giving in to “political correctness,” this comes from a deep-seated Christian conviction that to tell the story of those made in the image of God is to shed light on the disinherited as well as the powerful, the marginalized as well as the privileged. It is to tell the story of the beautiful diversity within the human race as well as uncover the ugly episodes and patterns of systemic oppression that are impossible to avoid.
It is encouraging to know that Grace College is striving to make progress as well. In the school’s history, there have been episodes of forward motion, such as when Seminary Dean, William Male, sought to diversify the student body of the seminary in the 1970s and 1980s, or when the college implemented mandatory cross-cultural experiences for all students. In more recent years, the campus has sought to make good on efforts by President Ron Manahan and now President Bill Katip, to emphasize the educational and Christian value of creating a campus that seeks to foster more positive attitudes about diversity and a campus that reflects the diversity that originated in the mind and heart of God. These efforts include not just committees and task forces (as important as these are) but real initiatives that foster understanding, awareness of diversity in history, and new hires who will no doubt help us learn how to keep these issues at the forefront of our mission.
Grace has indeed made great strides in the past and in today’s world, but there is more to be done. Amid these efforts, coming to appreciate landmark events in the long struggle for racial justice and equality can be important steps in continuing this progress. Indeed, perhaps these landmarks are even more important for PWIs like Grace to consider as they are for those with more diverse campuses. As many others have said, Black history IS American history and important holidays like Juneteenth represent opportunities for celebration, learning, and more importantly, for action.
Burkholder received his B.A. at Columbia International University; his M.A. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; and his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. His research interests center on the intersection of evangelicalism, Anabaptism, and Pietism, but he is also concerned with larger questions about faith, politics, and current events. He has authored 3 books and contributed to a number of publications, and he frequently shares his thoughts on his blog, the Hermeneutic Circle.