Dionne Coatie Holt
When I was fifteen years old, I had the opportunity to attend a week-long program for African American students interested in becoming teachers at Morehead State University in Kentucky. As part of the program, faculty from the Office of Minority Student Affairs spoke to our group about the richness of our heritage, the power of our ancestry, and the significant contributions of our race. The director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs at the time was Jerry Gore, a historian for the Underground Railroad and the great-great-grandson of Addison White, a famous Ohio fugitive of the Underground Railroad. Mr. Gore had arranged for us to visit a stop on the Underground Railroad. When we arrived, my fifteen-year-old eyes tried to absorb everything — the dimly lit space, the walls that served dual purposes, the dirt floors that provided a way for slaves to hide, rest, and escape. Being in that space, I distinctly felt the presence of my people. I could sense my ancestors, who despite all odds, made their way to freedom by any means necessary. In the same spot where I stood, they had once stood, having chosen freedom. Their choice would impact generations and open doors to equal rights, entrepreneurship, education, and more. Their choice would also enable a fifteen-year-old girl an opportunity that would forever change the trajectory of her life.
The Underground Railroad existed long before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and long before Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the day of June 19, 1895 when many slaves throughout the United States finally received the news of the Emancipation Proclamation. It celebrates the end of slavery in the United States and the official Emancipation Day. While June 19th represents the day we were set free, the actual celebration of Juneteenth symbolizes the onset of a new day in the lives of African Americans. It celebrates all forms of liberation. While the holiday is just one day, we can — and I believe, should — celebrate the spirit of Juneteenth all year long, not only to honor our culture, but because the act of celebrating can have great benefits for our mental health.
When we celebrate liberation, we are celebrating new beginnings. The feelings we get from celebrating liberation can themselves be freeing and cathartic, like removing the shackles that make us feel bound. In addition, celebrating the accomplishments of our ancestors instills an undeniable sense of pride. It helps to break down stereotypes and stigmas about our race. It ensures that we remain in touch with our roots, our culture, our traditions, and everything that makes us uniquely us. Lastly, it reminds us of where we came from and provides us with wisdom and knowledge that we can share with our children and our families, so we as a community can continue to develop and grow.
Whatever your race, nationality, culture, or background, you too can celebrate Juneteenth. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:
1. Find out what’s going on in your community. Many cities have Juneteenth celebrations, festivals, and activities. In my community, for example, there are plans for a benefit gala to preserve African American excellence, a unity parade, a family field day celebrating fathers with music, food, pop-up shops, and more.
2. Visit establishments in your area that honor African American history and culture, or plan a trip to a “museum of conscience,” such as The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, which provides history, information, and an understanding of all past, present, and future efforts devoted to freedom. In Washington, D.C., visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of African Art.
3. Read, watch, and take in as much information as you can about Juneteenth and the contributions of African Americans.
Find a book on the topic with a Google search. Look up “The Juneteenth Reading List,” “Twenty-Five Books for Kids and Adults to celebrate Juneteenth and Reflect on History of Slavery,” or “The A to Z list of Black Inventors.” Visit your public library or your favorite book store and ask for recommendations.
Watch High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America on Netflix which explores how much of what we consider American cuisine was originated by members of the African American community.
Take an anti-racism class from an African American educator at a local college or online.
4. Support Black-owned businesses in your community or online, and not just on Juneteenth, but everyday.
5. Reflect. Take time to be still and bask in the accomplishments of African American people. Meditate on the resilience of our predecessors and the promise of our future generations. Acknowledge all the challenges we have overcome and our contributions individually and collectively. As we, as a community, develop strategies for our next steps, partner with us, support our efforts, lend your voice and rally our causes. Our unity lends to strength and our collective strength leads to growth and continued advancement.
6. Practice self-care. African Americans have come so far as a people, however we still have so far to go. As the quest for equal rights continues, rest and restoration must accompany it. In the words of activist Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, “…we cannot forget that the revolution cannot happen without exhaustion.” As we vibrate higher, we must safeguard ourselves in mind, body, and spirit and protect what we allow to enter our psyche. When we practice self-care, we can experience greater personal power, clarity of mind, peace within, love of ourselves and others, and ultimately space for joy that epitomizes our liberation.
As for the fifteen-year-old girl who visited the Underground Railroad years ago, she matured into a young woman who at the age of 21 became the first African American female to win the title of Miss Morehead State University and became a top ten semi-finalist in the Miss Kentucky Scholarship Pageant. If I had won the Miss Kentucky Scholarship Pageant, I would have represented Kentucky in the Miss America Scholarship Pageant. I chose to major in social work, rather than in education, and received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Just as my ancestors chose freedom, I too chose a career to help liberate and empower men, women, and children of diverse backgrounds, and to champion their success as they seek their own paths to freedom.