Season 1, Episode 5: Ollie Johnson on Juneteenth
As Juneteenth celebrations around the country become more prominent, Ollie Johnson, Ph.D., chair of the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State, sits down with Today@Wayne Podcast host Darrell Dawsey to explain why the observance has grown in popularity and the significance it has for the current American political landscape.
Ollie Johnson is chair and professor of the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University. Johnson has conducted extensive research on the Black political experience in the Americas. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley.
Books by Ollie Johnson
- Kwame Dixon and Ollie A. Johnson III, Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2019)
- Ollie A. Johnson III and Rosana Heringer, eds., Race, Politics, and Education in Brazil: Affirmative Action in Higher Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
- Ollie A. Johnson III and Karin L. Stanford, eds., Black Political Organizations in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003)
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Welcome to Today at Wayne Podcast. I'm your host, Darrell Dawsey. June 19 marks the observance of an important yet too often overlooked milestone in American history — the anniversary of Juneteenth. Although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and saw it enacted the following year, word of the order freeing Black people held in bondage throughout the South took years to spread.
In fact, it wasn't until June 19, 1865, that word finally reached Galveston, Texas, a state where an estimated 250,000 people were still being subjected to the horrors of American enslavement. And even that event didn't end slavery completely; it wasn't until December 1865 that Blacks enslaved in Delaware and Kentucky were freed. The emancipation of the enslaved in Texas symbolized the ultimate death of the nation's most dehumanizing institution.
So significant was the event that June 19 would forever be known as 'Juneteenth.' Fast-forward to 2021, and a growing number of Americans around the country are now joining in Juneteenth celebrations that were once very limited in scope. Here to talk with us about the surge in celebrations as well as about the significance of the holiday is Ollie Johnson, Ph.D., the chairman of the Wayne State University Department of African American Studies. The author and coauthor of multiple books, including Black Political Organizations in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Johnson is a widely respected scholar of Black history and social movements. Welcome, Dr. Johnson.
Welcome, thank you for having me.
Absolutely, always good to talk with you, always good. So let's just jump right into it. Let's just say: What is Juneteenth? Just talk a little bit about the day itself and what it marks.
Juneteenth is a celebration of African American freedom. I like the way you laid it out. It's occurred in the context of the end of the Civil War. The slave owners did not want to inform their enslaved people that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and that they were formally, and legally, free. So they kept that knowledge from a lot of our people, and so it took military force. It took the physical military defeat of the slave South to bring an end to the Civil War and formal freedom to our people.
And that's what Juneteenth is about: celebrating formal freedom for our people. But as you also suggested in your intro, we are not fully free. And so it's an aspirational holiday. It's an aspirational celebration, because we still have to struggle for the basics of American liberty. But the celebration holiday of Juneteenth has grown because our people continue to have knees on our necks, foots kicking us in the back. Just obstacle after obstacle in our struggle for full freedom. And so we struggle against it, but we also celebrate the freedom we have.
How do you think people should observe the holiday? What are some ways you suggest people think about honoring and remembering Juneteenth?
Well, I think people should celebrate Juneteenth like they celebrate Kwanzaa. It's a time for the family, the community, to come together, to reflect on our past, celebrate our present, and plan and strategize for the future. And so our community has a wide range of celebrations. We can do picnics, we can do house parties. We can do community centers, stadiums, arenas. I believe in all forms of celebration, but I want that educational component to be key. I want us to study Black history. I want us to celebrate our culture, and I want us to plan our next steps.
As a nation, it seems that all across the country — and even in the more formal institutions, the White House, Congress — there seems to be more of an acknowledgement of the holiday. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that even outside of the Black community, where obviously Juneteenth holds a real special and serious significance, why does it seem to be that even American institutions — mainstream American institutions — seem to be at least acknowledging the holiday, if not necessarily outright celebrating?
Well, I think primarily because our people are gaining a little more power, a little more influence, a little more access. And once in those positions, elected and appointed, they're making demands on the institutions to recognize our people, to recognize our humanity, including celebrating our holidays. Because again, our struggle for freedom is part of this American struggle for freedom. And so I would say just like we're not free, America isn't free.
And I was going to say, I think you mentioned the Civil War amendments. Thirteenth amendment, 1865, abolished slavery. Fourteenth amendment, 1868, granted citizenship to all people. Fifteenth amendment, 1870, gave us the right to vote. Those amendments were passed over a hundred years ago, and we're still fighting for all three of those topics. We're fighting against a slaved labor. We're fighting for the right to vote. Darrell, I ask you why, in 2021, are conservatives trying to deny Black people, brown people and poor people the right to vote?
This is our reality. So the struggle continues, and Americans of goodwill embrace that. And so we have a lot of allies in this struggle. And that's another part of the reason why I think people beyond the Black community are also celebrating Juneteenth and recognizing its importance.
Now you mentioned some interesting things when you talked about the current situation with the vote; there's a lot of concern about voter suppression, a lot of the laws or the bills that are being passed in state legislatures around the country. There's been some concern, there's been some talk about the For The People Act, The H.R.1, the voting reform act that is being debated currently in Congress. Does Juneteenth offer us an opportunity to kind of add some motivation, put some wind in the sails of those kinds of efforts?
Most definitely. Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on where we are, and plan on where we need to go. And unfortunately, the basic aspects of American politics are under attack right now. I've argued that we've never been a full democracy, just like we Black folks have never been fully free. The country has never been a full democracy. And unfortunately, anti-democratic aspects of the country are prominent. And I always point to the right to vote, which is a guaranteed in the Constitution or in federal law. And people get mad at me for saying it, but I'll say it.
We, the American people do not vote for President of the United States. That is a problem. When you have a presidential system, that is a major anti-democratic element. But when we have elections, who do we vote for? We vote for unknown electors who select the president in the electoral college. That's an anti-democratic institution that dates back to the founding of the country that has never been changed over 200 years. And so there are many other aspects like that, which are institutional and systemic, but deny the people — or at least adult Americans — the right to vote, the right to participate actively and fully in American politics. So, we've got a lot of things to work on. We have a lot of things to change.
So even as Juneteenth, obviously celebrates the freedom of enslaved Africans in this country, it also offers us an opportunity to kind of re-evaluate the shape, the condition, of some of the institutions, some of the pillars that are supposed to be upholding the values of the nation. So as they always say, Black history is American history. And there is significance and implications for all.
Now, I know you are the head of the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State, so just can you tell me a little bit about how the university is going to be celebrating Juneteenth? What kind of things do we have going on? I know we've got a weeklong observance. I was just wondering if you could kind of fill in some of the events that folks in the community and around campus might want to check out.
Thank you so much for the opportunity. I am a member of the university's Juneteenth planning committee. And we've been meeting for months trying to develop activities and events for the campus community, the city of Detroit, and anyone who's interested. And so we have a very exciting lineup. Professor Kefentse Chike also serves on the committee. And so, the program of African American studies has been actively involved along with our associate provost … and other faculty members, students and staff. It's a very exciting process.
But I would say the celebration has begun. I don't know if you know, but apparently yesterday the Juneteenth flag was raised on campus. And so this is an exciting development, the symbolic raising of the flag that will continue throughout the month of June. The actual day of Juneteenth is June 19, but before then, I want to call your attention to activities on Tuesday, June 15; Wednesday, June 16; and Thursday, June 17.
We're going to have, on Tuesday and Thursday, prominent presentations by Detroiters who teach at other universities around the country. The first one is sister Professor Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, who teaches at the University of California Irvine in African American studies. She's going to compare the lives of three dynamic scholar activists who've been important figures in the struggle for Black freedom in the United States and Africa. On Thursday we have a brother — I don't know if you know him — Muhammad Khalifa, also from Detroit, got his Ph.D. in education from Michigan State University. Teaches at Ohio State University now, but his talk is going to be on education for liberation. He's a former public-school teacher, administrator, but now he's scholar and just a very dynamic scholar and personality. But one of our main events is going to be Wednesday, two hours, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. I encourage everybody to check it out.
The first hour is going to be dedicated to a conversation with Hannibal Johnson, who's a lawyer and a scholar, and one of the top authorities in the country on the Tulsa race massacre for 1921. We are acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. And I would like to talk about that a little later, but Hannibal Johnson has written many books on the topic. And so, I'm going to interview him Wednesday from 7 to 8p.m. And then from 8 to 9 p.m., he's going to be on a panel with lawyers, activists and scholars to deepen the discussion of the Tulsa race massacre, and Juneteenth. So those are the core of events, but I encourage everybody to check out our events calendar atwayne.edu.
And then June 19 is going to cap it with the African American Graduation Celebration, am I correct?
Of course, unfortunately the graduation has to be virtual, I believe. But I'm excited about it. I've already recorded my congratulations, and I know the students are excited about it. So we have a full week of activities and I encourage everybody to attend, participate, get in touch with us if you have any questions about any of the events, but definitely check out the university's website.
Absolutely a great time for the community to come out, and share in Wayne State's observance in honor of Juneteenth. So we're wrapping up, but I just want to give you an opportunity to add anything that maybe we haven't discussed. Is there something that maybe we did touch on that you want to expand on? Is there anything you want to say in closing?
Well, first I want to thank you for this opportunity. Darrell, you are a specialist in communications. So you know how important it is to get the word out [not only] to our people, but all people. And that's what we're doing with our Juneteenth celebration. And I think it's so significant that we are recognizing as much of the country is the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. This was an event in which approximately 300 people were killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Black folks. Thousands were displaced, left homeless. Arguably millions of dollars of property was lost.
This was a race massacre. This was an attempt to take out an entire people, an entire community. It was the Greenwood part of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And the difficult reality of it is it wasn't isolated. This is occurring in the aftermath of World War One, in which you had some African-American troops returning … with their uniforms, with their weapons. Some financial businesses' success occurring in the Black community, all of this in the context of Jim Crow segregation.
And so you had kind of a violent, explicit hatred of Black people and Black success that only took an instant to ignite. And so you know about obviously the Red Summer of 1919. And so these incidents of racial violence and massacres, they were called race riots. But they were really more race massacres [that] occurred all over the country. And I'm glad that we're recognizing it, but we all have to do something about it. I think reparations is the next step. We're getting increased recognition, but reparations is the next step in terms of making it right. Continuing on that path of creating a more just democratic and egalitarian society. I think we can do it, but I think we have a lot of work to do.
I absolutely agree with you. We got a long way to go, but I think that you've touched on some very important points and some very important steps that we as a country need to consider. And I think these are all things that we certainly can dwell on as we observe the Juneteenth holiday that's for sure. So, Dr. Johnson, we're going to wrap it up. But I want to say thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking the time and joining me today.
Thank you so much, appreciate you.
Look forward to talking with you again. I'm Darrell Dawsey, and this is the Today at Wayne Podcast. Bye bye.
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