History of Juneteenth

On June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that slaves were now free. Several theories have persisted to explain the two and a half year delay. Some believe a messenger was murdered on his way to deliver the news of freedom to Texas. Another theory is that the news was deliberately withheld from slaves. Still others believe federal troops waited to let slave owners reap the rewards of one final harvest. Regardless of the reason for the delay, as a result of the news, former slaves now had the opportunity to decide whether to stay and form an employer-to- employee relationship, or to leave the plantations or even leave the state entirely.  The shock and joy of these newly free men and women faded as they faced a new challenge of establishing a place in society for black people in America. June 19th, later called Juneteenth, became a day to remember, reflect, reassure, and motivate former slaves and their descendants. Some even embark on a pilgrimage each year to Galveston to partake in the festivities and community, free of labor (1)

1 [ https://www.juneteenth.com ]

Juneteenth Celebrations Over the Years

Early Juneteenth celebrations were an opportunity to remember lost family members and educate the rising generations with values of self-improvement and racial uplift. Descendants would often perform readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and partake in religious ceremonies and eat slave food delicacies, as well as incorporate new games and traditions. These often included baseball, rodeos, stock car races, and overhead flights (1)

In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official state holiday (1). Since then, 41 other states have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance in remembrance of the end of slavery. Today, Juneteenth celebrations are held in most states, if not all, in the United States. In the south, these celebrations in modern day involve picnics, rodeos, church ceremonies, and educational and historical services for children (2).
1 [ https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/ ]
2 [ https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/what-know-about-juneteenth-emancipation-holiday-n1231179 ]

Health Disparities

As we celebrate Juneteenth, we must not forget the issues that still plague African Americans to this day. In the wake of COVID, we are again reminded of the healthcare disparities between Black and White Americans; preliminary data from New York’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Surveillance system demonstrate a COVID mortality rate of 92.3 per 100,000 African Americans compared to 45.2 per 100,000 white Americans.[1]

Healthcare disparities amongst African Americans exist in almost every pathological modality. From infectious diseases, such as viral hepatitis and HIV, to physiological diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, we see that African Americans are disproportionately affected. 

As a society, we must go beyond merely acknowledging these disparities – we must act. As researchers, we must act to understand the environmental and economic conditions that contribute to these disparities. As physicians, we must act to reach these marginalized and disproportionately affected individuals. And as citizens, we must act to force our community leaders to make the systemic changes necessary to bring a more equitable and just society.

[1] https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-19-deaths-race-ethnicity-04162020-1.pdf

About the Creators:

The information in this post was researched and consolidated by the Carver College of Medicine’s chapter of the SNMA headed by co-presidents Becky Peoples (left) and Nolan Mattingly (right).

The Student National Medical Association is an organization committed to supporting current and future underrepresented minority medical students, addressing the needs of underserved communities, and increasing the number of clinically excellent, culturally competent, and socially conscious physicians.

The national SNMA page can be found at: https://snma.org

The Carver College of Medicine SNMA chapter page can be found at: https://medicine.uiowa.edu/md/student-support/opportunities-growth/student-organizations/student-national-medical-association

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