Penn encouraged students and faculty to take the day off from regular work on Juneteenth to take time to reflect on systemic racism.
President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, and Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell sent an email to the Penn community on Tuesday morning asking it to participate in a day of reflection on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated on June 19 to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
The email urged members of the Penn community to take the day off of regular work on Friday and use it to reflect on the historical significance of Juneteenth and consider “how we can learn from our past to chart a more equitable path forward."
The email was sent as demonstrations continue across the country, including weeks of protests in Philadelphia and one on Saturday on Penn's campus, over the death of George Floyd and against the systematic racism and police brutality against Black people.
“At a moment when our country is reckoning with the racism and discrimination that permeated the history of our country and universities for centuries, we are called to reflect on what we can do individually and collectively to dismantle systemic and structural barriers to equality,” the email read.
Although Juneteenth is regarded as an 'unofficial' American holiday, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order on June 17 designating Juneteenth an official city holiday for 2020. The following day, a U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he will introduce legislation that make Juneteenth an official federal holiday.
Last year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared Juneteenth a state holiday. This year, Wolf declared Juneteenth a special holiday for employees under the governor’s jurisdiction, according to PennLive. State employees will either receive Friday as a special holiday or receive a compensatory day to use on another date this year if their workplace must remain open due to the pandemic.
In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Director of Makuu Black Cultural Center Brian Peterson praised Penn’s decision to designate Juneteenth as a day of reflection. Peterson encouraged the Penn community to spend time thinking about the institution of slavery and the meaning of freedom, and to learn about the 1921 destruction of a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In addition to learning about the events in Tulsa, Peterson also recommended people read Justice in June, an online collection of anti-racism resources for individuals interested in becoming allies for the Black community.
“There is so much to learn, and study, and discuss, so I would encourage people to continue their reflection indefinitely, and use their voice to demand better,” Peterson wrote.
Director of the African-American Resource Center Valerie Dorsey Allen does not believe that leaders of the University have acknowledged Juneteenth as an institution previously, but said that Juneteenth has been celebrated at Penn by community members in the past. The African-American Resource Center regularly holds an event to acknowledge and celebrate Juneteenth's significance.
On Friday, the African-American Resource Center is hosting a community lunch to celebrate and discuss the importance of Juneteenth.
Like Peterson, Dorsey Allen said she believes the University’s email was an appropriate request, and believes that this year, Juneteenth should serve as a day of reflection on the meaning of freedom for the Black community.
“What does it mean for Black people to be free in a country that continues to treat them with contempt?” Dorsey Allen said. “What does it mean to have honest conversations with people about social injustices, economic injustices, educational injustices, and prison injustices in our country?”
Dorsey Allen said she urged those interested in learning more about systemic discrimination to visit on-campus centers such as the Greenfield Intercultural Center, Makuu, and the Women’s Center.
All city offices and facilities in Philadelphia will be closed on June 19, and the Philadelphia School District will also be closed, including its offices and summer school programs.
“This designation of Juneteenth represents my administration’s commitment to reckon with our own role in maintaining racial inequities and our understanding of the magnitude of work that lies ahead,” Kenney wrote in a June 17 press release statement.