Juneteenth Online Chat, Website Provides for Shared Experiences

By Spencer Watson

“This year especially we want people to ‘Celebrate, Educate and Connect,’ which has been our theme,” said Odette Woods, senior director of diversity at DDEI.

A special Juneteenth website  — ddei.uams.edu/Juneteenth — was created by the Diversity and Inclusion Engagement Subcommittee and Kelly Gardner, web developer, with links to explore the culinary traditions of the celebration, videos and articles about its history, and links to spoken word and musical celebrations, including virtual celebrations locally and nationally.

Additionally, the subcommittee hosted an open, online chat for visitors to share their Juneteenth experiences and traditions with others.

The subcommittee was organized under the Chancellor’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and is composed of volunteers and leaders among faculty and staff throughout UAMS. It is charged with promoting an awareness of and an appreciation for the diversity of our campus community and in engaging campus community members by designing, planning and implementing DDEI campus-wide initiatives/events that further the mission of the DDEI.

The online discussion, which lasted for an hour and a half, averaged about 125 participants throughout. Many volunteered their own experiences, from family traditions on Juneteenth to encouraging everyone to create their own celebrations, even new celebrations for those who may not have been aware of the holiday.

“The online discussion was a welcoming – and right now I think a very healing – space in which we were able to share and grow together, celebrating and promoting diversity and inclusion,” said Woods, who serves as the DDEI staff liaison to the subcommittee.

“I think what brought us together here today was a perfect storm of pandemic, racism and our reaction to it and the influence of social media. But I think that’s really allowed us to elevate the conversation we’re having,” said Gloria Richard-Davis, M.D., MBA, executive director for diversity, equity and inclusion, during the online event. “This is just one example of how we’re using virtual platforms to facilitate everyday routines, but I think this event is an example of the innovation we’ve show, meeting here in a way that we just would not have done previously.”

Many people mistakenly believe the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, ended slavery in America. However, it was an executive order from President Abraham Lincoln applied to those enslaved in the Confederacy, where it was not enforced by local authorities.

Nor did the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, which ended armed conflict in the Civil War, secure the freedom of all those still held in bondage.

The last slaves in the former Confederacy were not freed until June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and all slaves had been freed. It immediately became an anniversary of celebration, particularly in African American communities.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic limiting celebratory gatherings of large crowds, this year’s anniversary has largely been focused on education, especially given circumstances that have prompted nationwide protests over systemic racism still prevalent throughout the United States.

“This holiday marks the end of an ugly chapter in American history, but I encourage everyone to own the moment, to reframe it. Think of it as a reflection and the start of something new,” said Brian Gittens, Ed.D., vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, at the beginning of the online event.

Gittens encouraged all participants to open a dialogue with those around them, especially those with differences, and to “ask questions without fear or feeling of being judged.”

“I want us to take this time to reflect on a new way of interacting and a new way of being. I want you all to look at things differently, to identify those things that hinder your sense of belonging and to knock those things down.”