On Friday, in recognition of the importance of the day to Black members of the Olin community, to Black people across the country, and to American history, Olin College is recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday and closing our offices.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3, which affirmed that Texas was among the defeated Confederate states and declared that the enslaved Black people there were freed. This general order was needed because the Republic of Texas had not recognized the Emancipation Proclamation and kept Black people enslaved for two-and-half years after it was issued by President Lincoln in 1863.
The words of General Order Number 3 were plain enough, and read in part: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."
Freedom did not come instantly for the enslaved people of Texas, however, and it took years for Black people to live freely there and across the country. Today, while the order and its release of the slaves from bondage are the roots of the Juneteenth celebration, words in the order like “absolute equality of rights and rights of property” have still not been fully realized in the lives of Black people 156 years later. The deep roots of anti-black racism tied to slavery stymies the realization of equality of opportunity for Blacks and the overall wellbeing of the nation.
The image you see above with the bursting star in the center is the Juneteenth flag, a symbolic representation of the end of slavery designed by Ben Haith and later refined by Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf.
As I reflect on Juneteenth, I think of how precious and fragile freedom is and how our understanding of events is shaped by the telling and tellers of history. Until the wide-spread coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, I, like most of the nation, was unaware of the racially-motivated destruction of Black Wall Street. Rather than bury history, we must unearth it and trust that we can face the truth, even the hard truths of systemic racism.
Over the past year, we have seen our country engage in a national conversation about race, in ways not seen since the Civil Rights era. As a result, there is some positive movement in awareness and action regarding equity. This movement must be increased and sustained through individual and collective efforts by people, government, businesses, and educational institutions of this country to improve equity and eliminate racism.
We, at Olin, are intent on doing our part to ensure equity of opportunities for all members of our society. Olin was founded to revolutionize engineering education – and we are acknowledged for doing this. Now, Olin is committed to adding another facet to our academic mission: to increase equity in engineering education, and by extension, the field of engineering and its ability to improve the lives of people in underrepresented and underserved communities.
Juneteenth is a time to celebrate, a time to reflect, and a time to ask ourselves: what can I do to help finally bring about the “absolute equality of rights?” We can start by educating ourselves and our communities with the intent to make a difference in shaping a more just and humane future. A number of resources are available that may be of interest such as the Smithsonian’s “The Historical Legacy of Slavery, the 1619 project, the PBS program, “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, and the book On Juneteenth by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed.