Juneteenth provides opportunity to learn about Black history

Closeup of R. Xach Williams.
R. Xach Williams

Juneteenth commemorates a moment in time, June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black Americans in Texas were finally told they were free. Freedom Day has been celebrated for decades in Black communities.

Now a federal holiday, Juneteenth can also be a time of teaching and learning Black history everywhere, said R. Xach Williams, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Washington State University.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, Juneteenth celebrations arrived with the migration of Black workers from the South to shipyards and factories during World War II. Though slavery had ended, “the freedom that came afterward wasn’t really equal,” Williams said. Shipbuilding yards in Seattle and Oakland, California, were integrated and migrating was one of the only paths to upward mobility open to Black people.

Many Oregon residents don’t know how unwelcome the state was to Black settlers. In the mid-19th century Oregon voters passed “exclusion laws” to prevent Black people from moving to the state. Even after the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution overrode the Oregon statutes, they weren’t officially repealed for another 60 years.

Juneteenth should mean not only thinking about the South and racism and violence, but thinking about how our own places were developed. We have a responsibility to acknowledge this history.

R. Xach Williams, assistant professor
Washington State University

“I can’t tell you how many times I meet people from Oregon who say, ‘My family has lived in the state for three generations, and I’ve never heard this,’” Williams said. “Juneteenth should mean not only thinking about the South and racism and violence, but thinking about how our own places were developed. We have a responsibility to acknowledge this history.”

Williams has developed a course for WSU, Black Washington, that teaches some of that history.

He’s also part of an effort to re-introduce a Black Studies minor at WSU. At one time WSU had an interdisciplinary Black Studies program that included a broad range of subjects, such as Black literature, politics, history, sociology, and economics. As was the case at many other universities, it was eventually absorbed into the ethnic studies curriculum.  

Talking and learning about regional Black history honors the spirit of Juneteenth, Williams said.

“I think it’s really important at this time when there’s so much tension, division, and fractures, because it’s one of the ways we figure out a path together.”

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