The Salt Lake Community College Faculty Senate recently voted unanimously to recognize Juneteenth — a holiday that celebrates the end of the enslavement of Black people — as an in-class holiday.
The history of Juneteenth
Juneteenth found its origins back in 1865, two-and-a-half years after former President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves living in Confederate territory.
News traveled slowly in those days, so slaves in the far corners of the United States did not know about their new freedom until over a year later.
This was the case on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, when Union General Gordon Granger rode into town and announced freedom to the remaining slaves in the former confederacy. From that day on, it was acknowledged that it was no longer legal to own another person on American soil.
Festivities surrounding Juneteenth are like every other summer holiday — barbecue, drinks, music and parades. For anyone who wants to see a classic Juneteenth celebration, Ogden is hosting a festival on June 19 from noon to 9 p.m.
Not only is Juneteenth a day of celebrating liberation, but it is also a day of mourning for Black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
On May 30, 1921, a Black man named Dick Rowland rode an elevator with a white woman named Sarah Page. Page cried out because she was afraid to be on an elevator with a Black man. Rumors exaggerated the event at every telling like a giant game of telephone, and Rowland was arrested the next day under suspicion for sexually assaulting Sarah Page.
The Black population in Tulsa’s Greenwood District was furious and marched to the courthouse to protest. When a white mob came in, shots began to fire, and the protesters retreated to Greenwood.
What ensued thereafter was an estimated 300 deaths and 35 city blocks left in charred ruin in what is now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
SLCC acts to celebrate Juneteenth’s legacy
With so much history surrounding the date, the SLCC Faculty Senate felt the need to commemorate the date. Matt Merkel, head of the Academic Calendar Committee, said the college had been working on a way to remember Juneteenth for about a year now.
“A charge was given to us about a year ago,” Merkel said. “Juneteenth could either be a no-class day or a celebrated on-day. We came back and recommended to recognize it as an on-day and gave recommendations on how to make that day special.”
Multiple members of the Faculty Senate said the vote passed without debate.
Dr. Anthony Nocella, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology, attended the vote. He said there was one small hitch before the vote could take place.
“Not everyone knew what Juneteenth was,” Nocella said. “That was a lot of the development: educating people about June 19.”
Merkel said the group decided against giving the college the day off because doing so would mess up the rest of the college calendar. The former head of the Academic Calendar Committee, Kathy Bell, made an even stronger case for why they voted to make it an in-class day.
“Summer term is already pretty compressed,” Bell described. “The second half of summer semester already has two holidays: July 4 and Pioneer Day. Adding Juneteenth to that half of the semester would have been a problem. We probably would have had to extend final exams into the bread between summer and fall term. Another problem was that Pioneer Day and Juneteenth always fall on the same day. So, if they both fall on a Monday, you would be missing two classes in a term that is already short on time.”
According to Bell and Merkel, the college plans to schedule Juneteenth events such as special speakers and scholarship fundraising in the future; also, students and faculty would not want to come to school on their day off.
Dr. Lea Lani Kinikini, chief diversity officer and special assistant to the President for inclusivity and equity at SLCC, voiced her support of the Faculty Senate decision and painted a picture of what future celebrations will look like.
“While this year has nothing formally planned, in future the Transformative Experiences committee will plan to have Juneteenth as a ‘Focus and Learn Day,’ with a ceremonial flag-raising and other transformative learning experiences,” Kinikini said.
In addition to dedicated events being planned, the curriculum will see changes on that day to educate students about Black history. As of now, there are no details on what SLCC classes will cover in reference to Juneteenth.
Kinikini was incredibly proud of the decision to make Juneteenth a holiday.
“It showed commitment to diversity and equity,” Kinikini remarked. “Juneteenth, for many of us, is a day that celebrates freedom rather than, and in addition to, July 4.”
When asked about what this decision means moving forward, Merkel said it sends a message: “If you are a person of color, we recognize the past. Not everyone is afforded the same path to success.”