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  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences
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History, Influence and Joy: The Story of Black Emancipation

On June 15, the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion hosted a virtual Juneteenth event, Black Emancipation: A History of Celebration, featuring three expert panelists: Director of African American programs at the Heinz History Center Samuel W. Black, Associate Professor of History Laurence Glasco and Teenie Harris Archive Community Archivist for the Carnegie Museum of Art Charlene Foggie-Barnett. The event was moderated by Oronde Sharif, director of undergraduate studies in Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies. 

Clyde Wilson Pickett, vice chancellor for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, opened the event: “As we know, the enslavement of African people has presented long-lasting and devastating impacts on communities around the world that have created complex issues and challenges that we continue to grapple with today. Like our ancestors before us, we recognize that freedom is a journey and we acknowledge that the struggle for progress continues.” 

June 19, or Juneteenth, is widely recognized as a time to celebrate Black freedom, but the history starts long before the day in 1865 when Texas recognized the Emancipation Proclamation. As Pickett reminded the audience, “These varying celebrations create a tapestry that details the history, the struggle, as well as the resilience of Black people in this country.” 

Each panelist was given twenty minutes to present with time at the end for audience questions. Here are some of the highlights.

A history of emancipations

Samuel W. Black, Director of African American programs at the Heinz History Center, picked up where Pickett left off and discussed the history of emancipation days and the influence they have carried through the years. He opened with his surprise of the “explosion of recognition and celebration of Juneteenth” this year, resulting in a new federal holiday.

“It’s very important to look at this evolution of people of African descent recognizing and having an opportunity to reflect, celebrate and energize themselves for the continued struggle. Because it was a continued struggle for freedom in this country,” Black said.

For example, starting in August 1791, the Haitian Revolution was the first republic in the Western Hemisphere to overthrow slavery. It inspired communities across the country, including a community in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, to adopt it as a namesake called “Hayti.” 

The Aug. 1, 1834, West Indian Emancipation also had a significant impact on African Americans, Black said. Abolitionists looked to the date as an independence day for all people of African descent. This was echoed by the Black press, who reinforced the connection Black Americans had to the West Indian emancipation through their publications, event announcements and speeches. 

In his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass famously spoke about the hypocrisy of celebrating the Fourth of July while millions of African Americans remained enslaved. Similarly, in 1859, activist and orator Charles Lenox Remond again pointed to all of those still not free.

“One of the more important things to really understand from an African American perspective for the Fourth of July is that the recognition of the Haitian Revolution, the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the emancipation of slavery in the British West Indies, Liberian Independence Day—with all of that, the Fourth of July had little significance to African Americans at this time in the antebellum period,” Black said.

1865 brings us to what know to be Juneteenth, when celebrations started to slowly spread to other parts of country over time in the form of joyous gatherings and parties.  

Juneteenth and schools

Laurence Glasco, an associate professor in the Department of History, began his presentation with an all-too-common problem: He had never learned about Juneteenth during his formative education. “I vaguely remembered, there had been this thing called ‘Juneteenth’ but that was just down in Texas, I thought,” Glasco said. 

Discomfort while talking about slavery and freedom isn’t just part of the American social dynamic, he said, but also manifests in gaps in school curriculums. In addition, lessons about freedom and what the U.S. has done since emancipation often gloss over the difficult pursuit that being free entailed. 

Glasco demonstrated the need for more education around slavery and emancipation with an example about the Civil War. It’s commonly misunderstood that President Lincoln “emancipated” slaves. He clarified that, while the former president did sign the Emancipation Proclamation, it was enslaved people—who knew they were needed to help save the Union, and who leveraged their collective power— that ultimately freed themselves. “It was when they entered the fight that the tide was turned,” Glasco said. 

Later, when asked about curricula and the rise of Juneteenth celebrations, Glasco said, “It provides enormous openings for teachers and principals to really investigate and talk about these topics of slavery, emancipation and the shortcomings of emancipation. Juneteenth is one way we can really open up these fundamental conversations.”  

Black added to his answer by pointing out that Black culture has not always been a topic in education; it’s something more often learned in the community—at churches, organizations and from family. He continued, “If you’re relying on the school system to teach you Blackness, then you’re looking at the wrong place.” 

Black women and family   

The final panelist, Charlene Foggie-Barnett, is the Teenie Harris Archive Community Archivist for the Carnegie Museum of Art and the vice president of the African American Historical and Genealogical Society of Pittsburgh. She organized her presentation around “the wow, the how, and the now,” with a special focus on the impact the holiday has on Black families—specifically women—in the Pittsburgh area.

Wow. “Like many native Pittsburghers, I only learned about Juneteenth in the last 20 to 25 years. I went to both private and public schools here and didn’t learn anything about it,” Foggie-Barnett said. 

During her talk, she shared photos of “Miss Juneteenth” pageants that awarded educational scholarships. Foggie-Barnett said that as a child, she looked for faces of color while watching other televised pageants: “If I had grown up with something like a ‘Miss Juneteenth’ pageant, what kind of impact would that have had on me and would that have instilled a stronger sense of pride?” 

How. She continued to show black and white images of well-dressed women wrapped in furs on top of tailored dresses taken by Teenie Harris. Harris was a well-known Black photographer from Pittsburgh known for capturing the everyday slices of life. According to Foggie-Barnett, he was a master at revealing more subtle examples of emancipation from slavery. 

For instance, Foggie-Barnett explained that when enslaved women learned of their freedom, they changed out of their tattered clothes and into the clothes of their mistresses in an act of “putting on the cloak of freedom” after years of enslavement. 

As she clicked through photo after photo, she also directed the audience to something that often missing from conversations about African Americans and history: Black joy. 

Her photos showed not only celebrations, but busied streets in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, weddings and birthdays—everyday scenes of people gathered in someone’s home that also formed pivotal moments of Teenie Harris’s career. In addition to Tennie Harris, she pointed the audience to Mark Clayton Southers, another outstanding photographer who documented Black Pittsburgh.

Now. “We need to pay homage to what the new now is, the new generation of celebration,” Foggie-Barnett said. She encouraged the audience to dig into local Pittsburgh Juneteenth history and to participate fully in work toward social justice in the area.