Panel discusses the history of Black emancipation in celebration of Juneteenth


Zoom screenshot

Tuesday’s Black Emancipation: A History of Celebration panel focused on the importance of celebrating Juneteenth and the history of Black emancipation, featuring panelists Sam Black, Laurence Glasco and Charlene Foggie-Barnett.

By Betul Tuncer, Staff Writer

Laurence Glasco, associate professor of history at Pitt, said growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, he never celebrated any form of Black emancipation. Glasco said he felt that the main reason behind this was one thing — hiding America’s past.

“People were uncomfortable talking about slavery. I went to a Black junior high and we had Black history, but we really slid right past the issue of slavery, the focus instead was on free Blacks, and what we’ve done since emancipation,” Glasco said. “And it was like, that’s an embarrassing and shameful part of the past, and that it’s better to forget about and move forward.”

Glasco spoke at the Black Emancipation: A History of Celebration panel on Tuesday afternoon. The panel hosted by Equipoise, Pitt’s community group of Black faculty and staff focused on Black emancipation throughout history and the ways in which Americans have taken to celebrating and commemorating such history through Juneteenth.

Glasco said it wasn’t until later in his life that he was introduced to the idea of celebrating Black emancipation and the role Juneteenth played in that. He said the celebration of Juneteenth is crucial to recognizing and learning from the history of slavery and emphasized the need to first acknowledge emancipation in order to properly celebrate civil rights.

“One could not celebrate the achievement of civil rights without having first celebrated and achieved freedom from slavery and the lack of commemoration of that emancipation is something that really needs to corrected,” Glasco said.

Glasco said it’s “heartwarming” to know that Juneteenth is becoming a nationally recognized holiday and that this would be an important step in promoting even greater change within America. The Senate approved a bill on Tuesday evening to officially make Juneteenth a national holiday.

“I think the current and growing movement to memorialize Juneteenth shows that the country is increasingly ready to do so,” Glasco said. “And by promoting Juneteenth, we can help the nation confront slavery’s long legacy.”

Clyde Wilson Pickett, Pitt’s vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, spoke about the importance the event had for the University. Pickett said slavery is ingrained in this country’s history and the legacy of it continues to oppress marginalized groups, which is why it’s crucial to learn about the history of slavery and emancipation.

“As we continue to confront and dismantle these systems of oppression, to build more just communities,” Pickett said, “we must learn to use history as a tool to educate, to enlighten and to evoke change where it is needed.”

Sam Black, director of African American Programs at the Heinz History Center, gave a presentation about the history of Black emancipation in America and related it to the emancipation revolutions in Haiti, the British West Indies and Liberia. Black said these revolutions and independence days played key roles in shaping the celebration of Black emancipation, instead of the more commonly celebrated Fourth of July.

Black said when talking about the celebration of Black freedom, the Fourth of July is not significant because there were still millions of African Americans enslaved at the end of the American revolution.

“With the recognition of the Haitian Revolution, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the emancipation of slavery in the British West Indies and Liberian Independence Day, the Fourth of July had little significance for African Americans,” Black said.

Black said although slavery ended with the emancipation of the last enslaved people in Texas, in today’s society, African Americans continue to face various forms of oppression that impact their freedom including the prison industrial complex, educational and economic limitations and medical and environmental racism.

“The struggle for freedom continues. It’s not so much the slavery of antebellum America, but it’s a different type of slavery,” Black said.

Another main focus throughout the panel was the overall importance of the Black American experience, both in the past and now. Charlene Foggie-Barnett, a Teenie Harris Community Archivist at the Carnegie Museum of Art, focused her discussion on the importance of Black celebration, adornment, tradition and joy and the role it plays in celebrating Black emancipation and history in the modern day. 

Throughout her presentation, Barnett displayed various photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris, a Black photographer from Pittsburgh, who photographed the City’s Black experience and culture throughout the 20th century.

Barnett said Harris photographed various forms of joy and celebration of the Black community in Pittsburgh, including weddings, neighborhood kids playing in pools, important civil rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Juneteenth celebrations.

“He felt he picked up all kinds of celebrations, because Teenie was not someone who was a one type of photographer,” Barnett said. “He wasn’t just a photojournalist, he was everything.”

Barnett emphasized the importance of Harris’ work in presenting the experience of Black Americans post-emancipation and how the remnants of slavery still had effects within American society.

Barnett said in schools, Americans solely focus on major events in history including slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, the Black Power movement, the Obama era and the current Black Lives Matter movement. She said schools often forget that these are all tied together when talking about Black emancipation.

“If we don’t start with slavery, they will not understand the thread that runs through all of that, that’s what’s missing in education,” Barnett said. “I think the connective stories, the traditions, the information that is not based on a date, but just everyday life.”

Other panelists, like Glasco, also spoke about the need for Americans to learn and educate themselves on Black history and how Juneteenth can provide that. Glasco said the celebration and recognition of Juneteenth has the potential to bring about revolutionary impact on all scales. 

“It has the opportunity to make that impact in a number of ways, not only in the continued struggle, but also in the education system and so forth,” Glasco said. “It can open the door for a deeper understanding and more curricular instruction on blindness.”

Pickett said the celebration of Juneteenth is one that requires people to acknowledge ongoing racism within America and emphasized the need to continue to fight against inequality. He mentioned civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous quote, “Nobody’s free, until everybody’s free.”

“We take note that anti-Black racism still exists, inequality still exists and injustice still exists,” Pickett said. “Our ancestors knew, and provided us the opportunity to understand that we have work to do, and that we must take the opportunity to confront that work and to take action.”