Acknowledging freedom: BYU celebrates Juneteenth

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The Rhythm ‘N Soul Collective performs “Bless the Lord” during BYU’s Acknowledge event. The group sang two songs for the crowd. (Emily May)

The second annual Acknowledge event, hosted by the BYU Sorensen Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership, celebrated Black freedom and Juneteenth on Friday, June 14, at Helaman Fields.

The event featured performances by BYU’s Rhythm ‘N Soul Collective and a keynote address from Whitney Johnson Catt, the BYU associate athletic director for student-athlete development, diversity and inclusion.

Cynthiana Desir, a member of the Lead Out team at the BYU Sorensen Center, said the event was meant to recognize the history of Juneteenth.

Attendees read posters along the event’s gallery walk. The posters discussed the history of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth and more. (Emily May)

According to a gallery walk at the event, Juneteenth is a federal holiday that commemorates June 19, 1865. On that day, Union troops brought news of the emancipation of Black slaves to Texas after the Civil War was over, allowing the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to be enforced throughout the nation.

“Our understanding of how this history affects the lives of African Americans today directly correlates with our ability to participate in promoting racial understanding and harmony in the future,” one of the posters in the gallery walk said.

During Johnson’s keynote address, she discussed Juneteenth and her personal experience learning about its history. She noted the first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to enter Utah Valley were Black slaves — Green Flake, Oscar Crosby Smith and Hark Wales.

“I acknowledge the lives, triumphs and tragedies of those that came before us,” Johnson said. “I acknowledge that my freedom is not a privilege I have earned, or rather a gift that past generations have given me.”

Whitney Johnson Catt gives the keynote address at BYU’s Acknowledge event. She discussed the history behind Juneteenth and Black freedom. (Emily May)

Johnson also discussed the subjectiveness of the freedom declared by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, noting that freed slaves still could not vote or own land.

“Many of the free became sharecroppers, which was simply slavery by a different name,” Johnson said. “Many of the free became leased convicts, so they were arrested for petty, made-up crimes and forced to work for free. Again, slavery by another name.”

In her journey discovering the history of Juneteenth, she also noted the reconstruction of the United States post-Civil War.

“80% of Black males, because those were the only ones that could vote at the time, were registered to vote and could vote,” Johnson said. “They owned businesses and shops, they could marry whoever they chose, and they could have children and know that their children would stay with them, and the fear of being separated from their families wasn’t constantly looming.”

However, Johnson said, many white supremacists tried to tear down the progress of Black Americans during Reconstruction.

“They killed those who voted, so Black people were afraid to vote. They tortured those who were thriving in their businesses, so there was a fear of success,” Johnson said. “They implemented Jim Crow Laws and sent a powerful mass message to the nation that Black people were inferior.”

Despite the opposition, she said African slaves praised God through songs of freedom.

“They had a hope in Christ that their freedom, though subjective and conditional, could be permanent and infinite and lasting and true,” she said. “It was then that I was also reminded of my faith.”

The Rhythm ‘N Soul Collective performs “Lift Every Voice.” The group sang two songs at BYU’s Acknowledge event. (Emily May)

Johnson said during the Civil Rights Movement, those who were oppressed were able to endure through God.

“They fought battles in the courts with words and with movement, they fought back with nonviolence and communication and community, and victories were won,” she said. “Freedom that had been ripped away slowly came back. I acknowledge that faith fueled their progress, and I will develop that faith.”

Johnson concluded her address by emphasizing her duty to help others find freedom.

“I acknowledge that my freedoms were fought for and won by those who came before me. I acknowledge that there are those who would take away my freedoms and would have me be ignorant of the past and of my divine identity as a daughter of God. I acknowledge that I am accountable for what freedom means to me and how I embrace it,” Johnson said.

Inaê Ixtlahuac, the lead of the Psychology Belonging and Diversity Committee, expressed that the committee has collaborated with the Sorensen Center to host this event for the past two years.

Lily Owens, a member of the BYU softball team and a part of the BYU Athletics Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging department, said she recently embarked on a trip with the BYU Sorensen Center to travel to Alabama and Georgia and learn about Black history.

“To be able to bring this back and celebrate this with this beautiful community, it’s just so heartfelt and so amazing,” Owens said.

Members of the crowd raise their hands and smile during the Rhythm ‘N Soul Collective’s performance of “Bless the Lord.” The group sang two songs at the event. (Emily May)

Kimmy Yellowhair, another member of the Lead Out team at the BYU Sorensen Center, said the center is intended to inspire student leaders. The organization has hosted other events for holidays such as Indigenous People’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“The Sorensen Center really helps me develop (leadership) skills over time, and I became passionate about our underrepresented students on campus,” Yellowhair said. “Anybody is welcome to come and be a part of any of the initiatives or volunteer events like this.”

Jason Nouanounou, the secretary of BYU’s Black Student Union, spoke on behalf of the BSU. He said the club is a community where students can feel at home, and all students are welcome.

“For those who don’t know, for those who are curious, for those who may just be joining and visiting, please do know that Black students certainly have a presence at BYU, and you can find them at BSU,” Nouanounou said.

Alyssa Vang, a junior in BYU’s nursing program, said she attended the event because a member of the Black Student Union informed her of it, and she was curious about what Juneteenth was. She said she loved the Rhythm ‘N Soul Collective performances and the message behind Johnson’s keynote address.

“I got to really expand my education and knowledge about the history of Juneteenth,” Vang said. “It’s so significant to not only African American people, but also learning this history is very applicable to all different demographics of people.”

More local Juneteenth events can be found listed on this document.

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