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One year ago — following weeks of Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — Coe College in Cedar Rapids announced it would start recognizing Juneteenth as a campus holiday.
That meant the private college would give students and employees the day off in remembrance of June 19, 1865 — the day this nation’s last slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing them.
At the time, Coe joined a growing chorus of campuses nationally adding Juneteenth to their lists of recognized holidays — including Harvard University and Antioch College in Ohio. And Wednesday, Congress passed historic legislation and President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday, making Juneteenth a federal holiday — the first added in 38 years since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
In April, Grinnell College joined Coe in Iowa by adding Juneteenth to its official holidays. And the Iowa Board of Regents told The Gazette its leadership will consider doing so at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.
“Juneteenth is a very important day in our nation’s history,” board spokesman Josh Lehman said in an email Friday. “Since the 2020-21 institutional academic calendars were already set, and the federal holiday designation was made yesterday, our campuses remained open today. As next year’s academic calendar is being developed, observing Juneteenth as a holiday will be part of the discussion.”
Administrators at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, too, are “actively considering making Juneteenth a recognized holiday and will be making a decision about it in the coming days,” said spokeswoman Jill Hawk, noting the private college will celebrate the new federal holiday Saturday on social media.
“Juneteenth is important because it's a celebration of freedom, it's a celebration of opportunity, it’s a celebration of new beginnings,” Cornell’s Senior Diversity Officer and Director of Intercultural Life Hemie Collier said in a statement.
When former Coe President David McInally in June 2020 said his campus would recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, he wasn’t initially announcing a permanent Coe holiday.
But the campus quickly took that additional step a month later when the faculty, staff, students, board and administrators decided “Juneteenth would become part of the college’s official holiday schedule moving forward,” Coe officials told The Gazette.
“As our nation struggled with the aftermath of the George Floyd murder last summer, we felt it critical to recognize this important date and to ensure the opportunity for faculty, staff and students to attend community events, both virtually and in person,” Provost and Dean of Faculty Paula O’Loughlin said in a statement.
Coe has hundreds of employees, and its fall enrollment was just under 1,400 — although it has only about 100 students taking summer classes, as it runs primarily on a fall-spring academic calendar.
In announcing April 30 its decision to honor Juneteenth permanently, Grinnell administrators said they hoped to make space for the private college’s students and employees to celebrate more fully and think more deeply about the history and its relevance today.
“Although we have observed Juneteenth in past years with various on-campus gatherings and time spent in community, we hope this time off will allow you to more fully take part in celebrations and gatherings, even if such participation may be virtual this year,” according to the campus message from Interim Vice President of Human Resources Jana L. Grimes and Chief Diversity Officer Schvalla R. Rivera.
“In the context of the growing national discourse about systemic racism across various American institutions and systems, we also envision that this opportunity may provide time to reflect upon the connections between institutional and individual action to the continuing work of anti-racism and systemic change.”
‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’
Although Iowa’s public universities have not before recognized Juneteenth as an official campus holiday, they have held events and celebrations. All three this year disseminated campus messages — including one from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen, sharing Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Toyia K. Younger’s connection to the new federal law.
Younger’s 94-year-old cousin, Opal Lee, for years pushed for a federal Juneteenth holiday — earning her the nickname “Grandmother of Juneteenth” and a spot next to Biden this week when he signed the law.
In an essay Younger wrote about Lee, she said her cousin ramped up her Juneteenth advocacy in 2016 at age 89 when she led a walking campaign to Washington, D.C. Lee spoke at the National Press Club and wrote a children’s book and play, according to Younger.
“I’ve shaken my head in amazement seeing Opal on national TV, sharing the screen with A-list celebrities like Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Common,” Younger wrote in her essay, explaining her cousin’s long history with June 19.
When Lee was 12, a mob of hundreds assembled outside her family home in a predominantly white area of Fort Worth, Texas, screaming and yelling that they didn’t belong, according to Younger. Standing the doorway with a shotgun, her father was told “in no uncertain terms what would happen if they didn’t leave.”
So they did, Younger wrote, “under a cloak of darkness.” And soon after the mob burned down their house.
“The date of this violent act? June 19, 1939,” Younger wrote. “No small wonder that Juneteenth is so meaningful for her — a date literally burned into her memory. After a trauma like that, a different person might have then grown up filled with hatred, bitterness, fear or despair. Not my Opal.”
The woman went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree “when a Black woman earning any kind of degree was unheard of.” And she forged a career of public service as a schoolteacher and counselor.
At some point, Lee started a Juneteenth tradition of walking 2.5 miles across Fort Worth to commemorate the 2.5-year gap between when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and when news of it finally arrived in Galveston.
“On Saturday, June 19, Cousin Opal will once again set out on her annual 2.5-mile walk,” Younger wrote. “This year, her annual walk will feel more like a victory lap.”
Younger shared about how her cousin’s activism and commitment inspired her career — including at ISU.
“I see a bit of Cousin Opal reflected in many of our students today. They’re passionate about new ideas and innovative thinking. They take action when they recognize something needs improving or something isn’t right or fair.
“You’re never too young or too old to make a difference.”
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