SUNY Empire State College’s Black Male Initiative (BMI), one of the college's many student/alumni clubs, welcomed a large, diverse, standing-room-only crowd to celebrate Juneteenth Freedom Day, also known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day and African-American Independence Day.
Juneteenth recognizes the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Held on June 29 at the college’s Manhattan location, the event was organized by BMI member and the club’s second vice president, Carl Hall, BMI Treasurer and First Vice President Jawana Richardson ‘16 and the club’s president, Lawrence Johnson.
“Juneteenth is about the celebration of freedom from slavery,” said Johnson. “It should be our version of Passover, being delivered from bondage, an event that should be celebrated throughout the black community, even more than Thanksgiving in November, because we are not descended from the pilgrims who are acknowledged at that holiday. Rather, if you are a black American and have your roots here, you are probably a descendant of slaves. I was honored to be a part of this event, and I look forward to more events like it in the future. Now, more than ever, remembering our past is a priority, if we are to continue in the future as a people.”
On Sept. 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary warning that he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any state that did not end its rebellion against the Union.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the proclamation and accompanying executive order, freeing slaves in the south.
The Thirteen Amendment, which addressed those slaves not already freed by state action, made slavery and indentured servitude illegal everywhere in the jurisdiction of the U.S., became law at the end of January 1865.
At that time, it took several months for word of the passage of the Thirteen Amendment to reach the furthest corners of the nation and June 19, 1865 is recognized as the day when the announcement that all slaves are free was made in Texas.
The Juneteenth event included a performance by Marcus McLaurine ’09 and his jazz group, Native Soul.
Birdland jazz club characterizes McLaurine as a “bass virtuoso” and describes Native Soul’s performance as a “wealth of tone and sound … a quartet that understands completely the respect of each other’s talent …”
Keynote remarks, written by SUNY Empire Professor Emeritus Joe Washington, a noted jazz historian who specializes in civil rights as they relate to jazz in America, were delivered by Johnson.
The remarks included the history of Juneteenth, the accomplishments of African-Americans, liberated slaves who often continued to serve as underpaid labor on the same plantations where they used to work for free, who went on to start their own businesses, establish schools and literacy programs and actively participate in state and local politics.
African-Americans, as noted in the remarks, continued to achieve and make great contributions to society throughout history, including during the Jim Crow era and despite the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Washington’s remarks, delivered by Johnson, addressed modern realities and called on those attending BMI’s Juneteenth event to oppose restrictive state voter-registration laws and to speak out against violence perpetrated on people of color.
A final exhortation called on attendees to “communicate, organize, write and call our representatives (and) vote! We, too, must show the stick-to-it-ness and positive attitudes (that our ancestors did) … and remember that we have always stood up when adversity came calling. Peace on Juneteenth.”
The overall event and Johnson’s passionate delivery of Washington’s remarks were praised by those in attendance.
Richardson praised the “moving speech" by Johnson. She also noted the diversity of attendees, which included alumni, students, faculty, staff and administrators.
Richardson added that this event was “an excellent opportunity to shine the light on our history and culture leading up to the Emancipation Day for African-American slaves. We must never forget these patriots and our ancestors’ endurance through one of the worst human experiences in history. June 19 should be a national day of celebration.”
Hall echoed Richardson’s sentiments.
“A true celebration of America’s independence cannot be fully appreciated without the emancipation of slaves,” he said. “Without emancipation, the institution of slavery would hang over America’s legacy of freedom, justice and equality, tenets upon which America was founded, like the sword of Damocles.”
Hall said he found the “upbeat” event “enlightening.” The event, he said, “ignited conversation, (through) new-found learning and understanding. It was so successful.”
Keith D. Amparado ’88, chair of the BMI steering committee and president of the college’s Alumni Student Federation Board of Governors, said, “In today’s highly charged, dangerous and threatening political climate, the Juneteenth celebration tells us that, even hundreds of years later, black people remain wholly unequal in today’s America.”
Amparado thanked BMI for providing the attendees with “a critical history lesson, and for keeping us all mindful, regardless of our backgrounds,” and honored fellow alumnus McLaurine and Native Soul for “lifting our spirits with the essence of contributions made to America, American and global music by the very slaves who learned they were free on that momentous day.”
David Fullard, an assistant visiting professor and faculty advisor for BMI, said, "Clearly this well-attended and well-received event had a positive impact on the entire Empire State College community. Kudos to BMI for welcoming all people from a wide variety of backgrounds to celebrate Juneteenth Freedom Day together.”
Clayton A. Steen, the college’s vice president for enrollment management, praised the “fellowship with students, alumni, faculty, staff and guests from many races and nationalities.” He praised Johnson’s delivery of Washington’s words on “the profound meaning and compelling significance of the Juneteenth Freedom Day on American Culture.”
Steen also expressed his appreciation of the performance by Native Soul, as “(the) passionate performance (of) never before performed tracks from the band’s latest, not-yet-released CD … (and the) smorgasbord of soul food dishes prepared by ESC students, alums, faculty and volunteers.”
Christopher A. Whann, interim executive director for the Office of Enrollment Management, gave “kudos to the students, who really made the event such a special evening. I have attended dozens of college events over the years, and the extraordinary student engagement in the Juneteenth celebration made this among the most impressive to me.”