BYU’s Juneteenth celebration invites students to honor family roots

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BYU students, faculty and guests gathered in the Wilkinson Student Center to celebrate Juneteenth and remember their ancestors on June 20.

Juneteenth, a federal holiday established in 2021, memorializes the day in 1865 when Union troops entered Galveston Bay, Texas and announced that enslaved Black residents of the states were free. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Although it has long celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans.”

The Multicultural Student Services office, the Office of Belonging and the International Student and Scholar Services office sponsored the Juneteenth celebration the day after the official holiday. With the BYU campus closed to honor the federal holiday, students and faculty prepared room 2400 WSC to host the celebration.

BYU junior Rachel Davies, programs team lead, helped organize the Juneteenth celebration. Food and drinks were provided for guests that would allow them to move around and interact with the displays and people. Davies said she was “very grateful” to help host the event. She said the goal of the event was to inspire people to make a difference.

“I love it and I think that’s why the offices are here. To unite our campus and share the values of all the different cultures at this university,” Davies said.

BYU sophomore Layla Young, the emcee for the celebration, said the event was a “good kind of overwhelming.” She said she expected the event to be smaller, but dozens of people came to celebrate, learn more and interact with their friends.

Debra Bonner, Mauli Junior Bonner and Harry Bonner pose for a photo. They came to support Lita Little Giddins and celebrate Juneteenth. (Joe Wirthlin)

69-year-old Harry Bonner came to the event with his wife and son. Bonner’s family got their last name from the plantation where their ancestors were enslaved.

Bonner said Juneteenth is “those feelings that come to mind as I see where we were, where we are and what can be” in the future.

Bonner said he has seen signs that the nation is progressing to combat racism and value equality. Some of those signs include interracial marriage possibilities, President Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I see that as we struggle through the difficulties, it’s possible for things to change for the better, right now,” Bonner said.

41-year-old Mauli Junior Bonner, Harry Bonner’s son, said he hopes the celebrations of Juneteenth will be able to spread to all Americans, not just Black Americans. He had people come up to him and tell him “Happy Juneteenth,” but he wants the next step to be for people to say “Happy Juneteenth” to their white friends as well as their Black friends.

“We can’t forget the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost that led to Juneteenth. White and Black Americans fighting for the same cause. We can continue fighting together,” Mauli Junior Bonner said.

Three students presented music and poetry which related to the holiday. BYU senior Christine Leblow sang the song “When You Believe” from the “Prince of Egypt” soundtrack. BYU graduate Naomi Robinson shared a poem she wrote and BYU senior Brianna Moodie sang the traditional spiritual song “Deep River.”

After their performances, Lita Little Giddins, associate vice president of the Office of Belonging, shared photos of her family and spoke about the legacy Juneteenth can provide for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Everything that has come from Juneteenth is a part of the gathering of Israel. We’re all a part of God’s family and the gathering, and all have a part in it,” Giddins said.

The Multicultural Student Services office, the Office of Belonging and the International Student and Scholar Services office are designed to help and support students at BYU who do not feel included or needed. Events such as these, as Davies put it, are designed to teach people about others and help every student at BYU feel welcome.

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