Message from the Head: Juneteenth

 

Head of School

June 18, 2021

Dear Students,

I have asked our faculty to help me write this letter to you because this is a truly spectacular moment in our nation’s life. Here’s what we want you to know about Juneteenth as a beginning exploration into this momentous event.

Opal Lee, a 94-year-old African American woman, has been an activist her whole life but spent the last five years advocating for the importance of Juneteenth as a national day to commemorate the full emancipation of enslaved people. Juneteenth is a significant event in African American and American history. Ms. Lee wanted the story of freedom for enslaved people to be celebrated--not just in her own state of Texas where the first Juneteenth took place--but nation-wide. She began to walk the distance from her home in Fort Worth, TX, to Washington, DC, raising awareness along the way. It took her five long years to get this bill passed into law and yesterday, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” was successful at last.

On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously voted to approve a bill co-sponsored by Senator Markey and 60 others, including our own state Senators, Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand, declaring tomorrow, June 19th, a legal public holiday. Yesterday, President Biden signed it into law. It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was added to the short list of federal holidays in 1983. We have many people to thank for turning this day into a national holiday but most significantly, Ms. Lee, whose hard work and dedication proves that one person can make a major contribution to our country.

Juneteenth is also referred to as “Emancipation Day” and several other names like “Second Independence Day,” but its official name will be “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” Juneteenth is the day that enslaved peoples in Texas were finally freed by federal troops. As you may know, the Civil War was fought to end slavery, and while the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the Confederate states as of 1863, it took 901 days for the Union Army to gain control of those states and for that news to travel to Texas. Black Texans have celebrated Juneteenth every year since, despite being met with threats and sometimes outright violence. As the years passed, African Americans across the country embraced this holiday as a way to honor both emancipation and the resilience of their community in the face of continued adversity. Now we will all join in that remembrance. President Biden said that Juneteenth “is a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take” and at the same time, it’s a day “to heal and hope...and emerge from those painful moments to make better versions of ourselves.” Juneteenth calls us to action as well as celebration.

Do you know how many federal holidays we have? It’s not very many--just twelve. A federal holiday means that all federal employees, like postal workers and public school teachers, are given the day off to commemorate something very special in the life of our country. (This year, the mail will still be delivered, since the bill was passed just this week.) Other employers are encouraged to do the same. As Vice President Harris said, “When we establish a national holiday, it makes an important statement. National holidays are important. These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often, to acknowledge our history.”

What can you do to celebrate Juneteenth? There are many online resources with suggestions for marking this day. Our faculty have compiled this folder which you can find here. Many communities around the country read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud and you and your family may wish to do the same. Another important way to celebrate this day is to reflect on the history of slavery in the United States and learn about how African Americans suffered for centuries under its rule. Reading about our history is an important activity and there are many books to explore in this area.

Lastly, you can pray for healing in our country and for the restoration of rights and dignity to all of our citizens, especially to African Americans who still struggle under many injustices and inequalities. The efforts for greater justice doesn't end with the restoration of rights but it must continue so that we as a nation ensure that civil rights be expanded for the benefit of all Americans. You can be a person who works for justice and equity and to look for ways to make certain that all people are given the full breadth of human rights and privileges.

Tomorrow, we as a faculty are going to be thinking of you, our students, and this new holiday that we all have been given. Make the most of it and be a person who stands up for racial justice and racial healing. Be the person who demonstrates love for all people, not just on holidays, but always. We know that’s who you are. We are counting on you.

Here’s to our first Juneteenth National Independence Day! The faculty and I are celebrating with you.

Sincerely,

Virginia Connor
Head of School