Juneteenth’s first celebration in Utah creates conversation about commercialization concerns, Black history education at BYU

The BYU Multicultural Student Services office celebrates Juneteenth near the quad on Friday, June 17, by putting up posters and flyers with information about the history of the holiday and former slaves. Juneteenth marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation and slavery’s official end reached enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas. (Andrea Zapata)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill in March to make Juneteenth a state holiday, almost a year after President Biden made it a federal holiday for Americans to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when U.S. troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and shared the news that all remaining slaves were free. The news came almost two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as the Civil War ended.

“Juneteenth is a really good example of how no advances of racial equality in America have come for cheap,” said BYU history professor Matthew Mason. “The fact that it wasn’t until June of 1865 that the U.S. troops were able to spread the word of emancipation shows how dedicated slave holders in Texas were to try to deny people from their freedom.”

The holiday, also called “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day,” is considered by some as “America’s true Independence Day.”

“Juneteenth is the one and only commemoration of freedom of this country, because you can’t be free until all of the people are free,” said Solidarity For Justice president Natasha, who goes by the alias Tash 5 the People. “June 19 is the real day of independence of the United States.”

Just like Natasha, “His Name is Green Flake” movie director Mauli Bonner talked about how for him, Juneteenth marks the actual freedom of the United States because up until June 1865, African Americans in Texas were still enslaved.

“Me coming from enslaved ancestry, this holiday does touch home, as my great-grandfather was enslaved,” Bonner said. “This holiday is the beginning of our free nation, and it’s important to me because without it, we are not speaking about all Americans.”

When asked about how he plans to celebrate the holiday, Black Student Union president Nathanael Byrd emphasized the importance of education about Black history.

“The best way to honor this day is spend it educating yourself, learning more about Black history, how much it affected America and remembering that Black people built this country,” Byrd said referring to how slaved-produced cotton fueled the United States’ economy during the end of the 1700s and the 1800s.

“Juneteenth is a day of conversation and it allows us to expand education on Black history,” Tash 5 the People said.

However, with Juneteenth being a federal holiday since last year, there are some growing concerns of the loss of its meaning.

“It is a real danger when a holiday becomes a broad American holiday and it loses its meaning,” Mason said. “This is not just a day off, as there is a political meaning to it.”

Another growing concern surrounding Juneteenth is the possibility of companies turning it into a capitalized holiday.

“I don’t want Juneteenth to be a new marketing tactic, and I am afraid because I am seeing all these organizations celebrating Juneteenth but they don’t even have anyone on their board who is Black or a person of color,” Tash 5 the People said.

Although BYU offers classes in Black history, Byrd said he would like to see much more done by the university to educate students.

“From what I’ve seen, BYU isn’t teaching Black history to its students, and you need to seek that education out,” Byrd said. “There is no effort by the university to teach or to make those resources available.”

BYU Multicultural Student Services advisor J Teresa Davis said she wants to see more effort by BYU in this regard.

“I feel like there could be more done by BYU to make sure that this history is taught, not only Black people history but all people of color history,” Davis said. “The challenge is that you need to be careful that the right person is teaching such a class and that all the history is encompassed on it.”

Byrd said there are professors at BYU who are trying to add Black history to their curriculum but are facing accusations of radicalization. Three professors who are allegedly facing accusations of radicalization were contacted by The Daily Universe and either had no comment or didn’t respond to the inquiry.

Yet, some BYU staff members are working to broaden students’ opportunities and resources to learn about Juneteenth and Black history. One of them is Anthony Bates, managing director of the Sorensen Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership.

Bates has served as a lead administrator for the African American Civil Rights Seminar since 2012. He said “it is a great opportunity to both teach Black history and give them personalized experience with it.”

Students who participate in the course get to share their thoughts and perspectives on selected readings and videos on the poverty, disadvantages and discriminations African Americans had and have to go through.

“We want to create community and camaraderie for students who are most impacted by Black history so they have the strength and knowledge to communicate and educate on their own terms,” Bates said. “The African American Civil Rights Seminar is one of the most impactful developments for Black BYU students in recent BYU memory.”

According to Mason, classes such as HIST 367 (Slavery in the United States), HIST 373 (Civil War Era) and HIST 383 (African American history, 1865 to present) can help students better understand the reality of how Black history is an integral part of American history.

When asked about the possibility of BYU putting up events to celebrate and honor Juneteenth in the future, Davis said BYU would “need to have the right people to do it and have all voices involved.”

Even though there are some resources to learn about Black history available at BYU, Byrd said “it’s really important that students educate themselves, and although there are many students who want to be educated, there are also plenty who do not and who view learning about Black history as radicalism or liberalism.”

Byrd also explained that students can’t fully understand the history of the United States without learning Black history as well.

“I am concerned if BYU students look at Juneteenth, Black history, or concerns within African American communities and think that because they are not Black or African American they don’t really need to be involved,” Bates said. “We need to cultivate on campus more of an environment where the world is really our campus and Black history is not just about Black people but a comprehensive American history.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email