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Juneteenth is African American Independence Day and it's past time that we celebrate it

Tiffany N Ford
June 6, 2018
For the first time in the organization’s history, Health & Medicine Policy Research Group will be celebrating Juneteenth, a day regarded as the oldest national celebration of African American liberation in the United States. I’m not sure that I can fully describe how valued this decision makes me feel as a Black employee of the organization, but I am going to try.

When I was a little girl, my mother gave me research projects to complete every summer. She said she wanted to keep my brain working, but really, I think this was an attempt at keeping me busy and distracted for the months in between school. Fortunately for her, both goals were accomplished. Her assignments always centered on topics that she knew I would not learn in public school: African American history. I wrote papers about the brilliance of Madame C.J. Walker, the bravery of Ruby Bridges, and the importance of Juneteenth, among many others. Each of these topics expanded my own understanding of myself as a Black girl; however, Juneteenth always confused me. Although I was already out of school for the summer, my 10 year-old brain could never understand why June 19th didn’t have a special note on my calendar. It was such a historic day, but wasn’t mentioned anywhere that I could find with my novice research skills. That was one of the first times that I had to grapple with the realization that many African Americans grow used to: despite our ancestors’ exploitation to build the United States of America, we are still not welcomed, acknowledged, or truly valued in this country.

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th of every year, marks the day that the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom in 1865. Although you won’t see it on many calendars or acknowledged in mainstream media, June 19th is an African American Independence Day. To have that day largely erased year after year is not only a slight to the little Black girl inside of me and other African Americans alive today, but an ongoing disregard of our ancestors who remained in chattel slavery for an additional two and a half years until the news of their freedom made it to their plantation.  June 19th is their Independence Day.

The definition of health equity that we use at Health & Medicine, coined by Dr. Camara P. Jones, states that health equity is a process of assurance of the conditions for optimal health for all people. The definition goes on to say that achieving health equity requires at least 3 things: 1) Valuing all individuals and populations equally; 2) Recognizing and rectifying historical injustices; and 3) Providing resources according to need. Health & Medicine’s decision to celebrate Juneteenth advances the process of health equity by valuing African American Independence Day equally to that of other important holidays in the U.S. This celebration also works toward recognizing and rectifying historical injustice through narrative change and increased dialogue about the history of that day.

You see, celebrating Juneteenth is about much more than providing an additional day off for employees. Celebrating and acknowledging Juneteenth is an organizational recognition that the Fourth of July is not the only Independence Day that deserves to be celebrated. Celebrating Juneteenth means recognizing American history – my ancestors’ history – and honoring it with the same vigor that we honor other important days, an action that we do not do enough of in this country.

I am excited that Health & Medicine is taking this important step in changing the narrative around Juneteenth. I sincerely hope that other organizations will see the value and follow suit so that maybe one day, other little Black children can look at June 19th on the calendar and know that they live in a country that values them, too.


The author and her family (Tiffany is far right).