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‘Juneteenth should be a day of reckoning’

President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Washington. From left, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., Opal Lee, Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., obscured, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C., Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The issues raised by Juneteenth, the annual holiday that pays homage to the end of slavery in the U.S., should serve as a call to action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement.

This was the message of experts who participated in a virtual Northeastern event on Thursday that commemorated the events of June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom more than two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been executed by President Abraham Lincoln.

“As we recognize this inaugural Juneteenth holiday, let us wisely anchor ourselves in this day as a means of recommitting ourselves to establishing, to achieving, to defending actual freedom in our present and our future generations,” said Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker and author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.

A portrait of writer Jelani Cobb.

Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker and author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. Screenshot via Northeastern University

Northeastern recognized Juneteenth as a university holiday on Friday. All members of the Northeastern community are encouraged to participate in Juneteenth events that are happening virtually and in-person on the Boston and Seattle campuses this week.

Cobb delivered a keynote address in place of Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian who was called to Washington, D.C., for the signing of a bill on Thursday by President Joe Biden that made Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Cobb and Patricia Davis, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern, each acknowledged that they had never heard of Juneteenth until they were adults.

“It is almost unbelievable that there were still people enslaved, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, simply because they had no idea that they had actually been freed,” Davis said during a panel discussion.”It is certainly no accident that Juneteenth is coming into wider prominence at this particular historical moment.”

The growth of Black Lives Matter throughout the United States creates hope that Juneteenth will contribute to a rallying cry for increased social justice reform, said Karlene Griffiths Sekou, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement in Boston.

The Juneteenth holiday “is a profound gesture that must be supported by systemic, structural, economic, and equitable reparations,” said Griffiths Sekou, director of the Boston Healthy Start Initiative at Boston Public Health Commission. “We must reimagine community safety by teaching our youths the truth about American history, and the role that Black individuals and Black freedom struggles play in its flourishing.”

Cobb noted that the U.S. government has paid reparations for slavery in 1862—though in a counterintuitive way.

“The Congress voted to abolish the institution of slavery, and they paid reparations,” Cobb said. “They paid reparations to the white people who owned slaves. Not to the people who had been enslaved.

“So the one time we have a record of reparations for slavery in the United States, the payment went to white people, not Black,” said Cobb.

He expressed hope that Juneteenth will inspire people to consider why slavery existed in the U.S. for more than two centuries.

“Juneteenth should be a day of reckoning, a day in which we direct our attentions to the modernday legacy of slavery in our society—and abroad, in places where people are still struggling to achieve freedom from slavery,” Cobb said. “That has to be a way that we handle this holiday.”

 J. Keith Motley, consultant president and CEO of the Urban League of Massachusetts, said the Black Lives Matter movement offers Northeastern an opportunity to grow.

“This is an astonishing opportunity for Northeastern to reshape itself going forward,” said Motley, a 1978 Northeastern graduate. He praised the university’s decision to appoint Karl Reid as the university’s senior vice provost and chief inclusion officer.

“We have a lot to learn from our community,” said Reid. “There are funds of knowledge that they bring that we can apply to our understanding of theory and practice and frameworks to produce and co-create the newest solutions.”

The new holiday should ultimately bring people together, said Jay Williams, pastor of Union Methodist Church in Boston.

“The only way to cultivate the type of political force that leads to some type of change is to say, ‘We won’t fall trap to this divide-and-conquer net,’” Williams said. “Instead, what we’ll do is unite across these barriers, across these silos, across these particularities of our identities—and say, ‘My freedom is entangled in your freedom, and I don’t get free until you get free.’”

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