Ohio State University: Ohio State celebrates Juneteenth with reflection of history

Juneteenth, a federal holiday not a year old, is an opportunity to begin new traditions and determine how to commemorate the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans learned they were free under the Emancipation Proclamation.

That was the message from Shakeer Abdullah, keynote speaker of The Ohio State University’s first annual Juneteenth Celebration Luncheon. The luncheon is a new tradition hosted by the Frank W. Hale, Jr. Black Cultural Center with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“What does this holiday mean to all Americans and what does it especially mean to Black Americans? We are at the beginning of this holiday, so we get to decide what this holiday is going to be. We get to decide how we want to celebrate and how we want this to be remembered,” said Abdullah, a senior project manager with Amazon’s Career Choice program and a university alumnus.

“We get to determine what Juneteenth is going to be. We now almost universally recognize [Martin Luther King Jr Day] as a day of serving, a day of service, and it is my hope that Juneteenth becomes a day of learning.”

University leaders, including President Kristina M. Johnson, Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer James L. Moore and Hale Center Interim Director Andre Brown, joined students, faculty and staff to fill the main dining room at the Faculty Club on Thursday. Jazz musician Vernon Hairston, an Ohio State graduate, provided music throughout the celebration.

Johnson said she was honored to be president when the university announced last year that Juneteenth would be an official university holiday.

“We’re so grateful that Ohio State has a history we can look back on with pride and also recognition that we can only be better,” Johnson said.

She pointed out that Ohio State never restricted admission to women or minorities. Johnson also acknowledged that it took student protests in the 1960s and 70s to prompt the university administration to act on issues including racial and gender inequity and inequality.

Moore said that while the country’s progress has been exceedingly slow, Black children in America are growing up in a world that is more accepting and just than preceding generations.

He also said the civil rights protests following the death of George Floyd at the hand of a police officer represented a missed opportunity to effect meaningful change. He said Ohio State is working to make progress on issues of inequity and inequality.

“At our own educational institution, a long self-examination resulted in the RAISE Initiative, designed to bring 50 new research faculty to our beloved university over the next decade to focus on race and inequity issues,” Moore said. “In my view, I hope this is a down payment on the promise of new orientation for our university.”

Abdullah said the university is working to rectify a checkered history with the promise of a debt-free bachelor’s degree as well as continuing to open new pathways to more students of color to attend Ohio State. But he said Juneteenth also offers the opportunity to make sure the full version of history is told.

“How we celebrate Juneteenth will be our legacy, because this is on us. We get to set it up. We get to say how we want to celebrate and how we want to move forward,” he said. “I say we make it a day of learning. Why? Because we’re seeing across the nation laws being passed where we cannot teach this history.

“We’re seeing critics and folks coming to the forefront and saying that the hard questions can’t be asked, the hard truth can’t be told. Let’s make this a day of learning. Let’s decide how we will celebrate Juneteenth moving forward.”