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Happy Juneteenth!

Official Juneteenth flag

Phoenix A. Matthews, PhD, associate dean for equity and inclusion, penned this reflection on the origins of Juneteenth and the significance it holds in 2020.

Happy Freedom Day!

Juneteenth, a combination of June and nineteenth, is a widely celebrated holiday within the African American community and beyond. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the date on which the last of enslaved Blacks who resided in the Confederate States were freed by the Union Army. Many of us were taught that the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in January of 1863 resulted in the release of slaves in the United States. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the Confederate States and did not include slave holding states, such as Maryland, that remained in the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was also non-enforceable until the slave holding territory was defeated by the Union army. Once liberated by the Union armies, many of the former slaves remained with Union troops to provide supportive labor—mostly unpaid—such as burying of the dead and providing meals for the soldiers. Slavery in the United States did not come to an official end until December 6, 1865, following the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

2020 represents the 155th anniversary of the Juneteenth celebrations and represents another important turning point toward true freedom for African Americans. Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a White police officer, there have been calls to reform, and in some cases to defund, police departments across the country. Calls for reform are in response to a long and ugly history of racial violence and police brutality directed toward African American and other communities of color. Indeed, African American men are the most at risk for police violence. Recent data suggest that over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by a police officer. In addition, African American communities are disproportionately impacted by high rates of police surveillance and arrest. Once arrested, African Americans are more likely to be convicted, imprisoned and to receive longer prison sentences than Whites who commit similar crimes. In terms of the ultimate punishment for a crime, the data are even more disturbing: the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly four times higher for Blacks than for Whites.

Ironically, or perhaps not, the seeds of the present day injustices in policing were planted in the very amendment that freed the enslaved. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

This year, participate in a Juneteenth event … and as you do so, recall that we do so against the backdrop of renewed struggle for Black liberation and justice.

Phoenix Matthews

Historically, the first formalized policing efforts began in 1704 with the creation of slave patrols that were created to prevent slave rebellions or escape. In her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander presents carefully researched data to argue that policing was developed or and has continued as a strategy to enforce the White Supremacy ideologies that were created to defend the horrors of slavery. Hundreds of years later, the police force continues to be a source of fear and oppression for Blacks.

This year, participate in a Juneteenth event that celebrates Black freedom. And as you do so, recall that we do so against the backdrop of renewed struggle for Black liberation and justice. Educate yourself about the history of race and racism in the United States. Contribute to organizations that are fighting for racial equality. And most importantly—for those of you in a position to teach others—recognize and intervene in systematic sources of bias, in the healthcare setting and beyond.

Happy Juneteenth!

Besides serving as associate dean for equity and inclusion, Phoenix A. Matthews, PhD, is a professor and the Helen K. Grace Diversity Scholar at the UIC College of Nursing. They are internationally known for their health disparities research with underserved populations, most notably their work examining determinants of cancer-related health disparities.