Even though Juneteenth only became a federal holiday in 2021, it has been celebrated in African American communities since 1865. The commemoration has roots in Galveston, Texas, where on June 19, 1865, federal troops stormed the town and freed enslaved African Americans across the state, marking the beginning of the end of 246 years of American chattel slavery.

This year, the Institute’s Juneteenth celebration was hosted by the new Black Culture, Innovation and Technology (BCIT) department and featured both a lecture for academic discourse and a reception. The lecture portion began with a land acknowledgment by Meligha Garfield, BCIT Director, which served to honor the Muscogee Native American tribe who originally owned the land.

“It is important with every Juneteenth celebration that you pay homage to your ancestors. So whether that be our ancestors that are African Americans or Black from the African diaspora, but also the people that have had land here before any of Atlanta was even here and [in this case,] that is with the Muscogee tribe,” Garfield said.

Garfield also displayed and explained the significance behind the Juneteenth flag. The flag has two curved horizontal stripes, one blue and one red, and features two stars in the middle, with the date “June 19, 1865” printed on the side.

“The Juneteenth flag features a white star at the center, representing both Texas, the Lone Star State, and the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states. The star is surrounded by a movement, inspired by a bursting outline, symbolizing a new star. Supernovas are awe-inspiring cosmic events, metaphorically representing the profile, struggles and inner strength of African Americans,” Garfield said.

Garfield continued to explain that the curved angle of the stripes represents a new horizon and opportunity for African Americans. Finally, the flag’s red, white and blue colors serve as a reminder that “the formerly enslaved and their descendants are free Americans too,” Garfield said.

The keynote speech was delivered by  Maurice Hobson, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Historian at Georgia State University. Hobson provided a general overview into the history of Juneteenth and American history through an Afrocentric lens.

Hobson closed his speech by tracing the history of education and marginalized groups. He stated that, currently, professors in Georgia are facing censorship of their curriculum from the state.

“We have been told that you can’t teach social justice,” Hobson said. 

“I want to say [around] 2020… 2021, particularly after the unrest that took place in the summer of 2020, a call came in from the state legislature to try to see which professors were teaching critical race theory,” he said. “We got a mandate that we had to submit all of our syllabi, and they combed through to see who was teaching critical race theory,” Hobson said.

The celebration portion was held in the Ferst Center plaza and provided music, dance, food, community and a showcase of culture for all in attendance. Garfield, who led the event’s planning, explained that Tech was looking to provide a space of understanding and recognition in its Juneteenth celebration for both Black and non-Black attendees.

“How do we recognize [Juneteenth] here on campus and understand the rich legacy of African Americans? And their place both here in the city of Atlanta, but also here at Georgia Tech … even today, we’re having over 2,000 plus Black students that are attending. How do we make sure that they feel like they belong, but also understand that rich history? But then also that the larger campus community understands the rich history of Juneteenth as well,” Garfield said on the framework for the planning process.

While the event was hosted by the BCIT, other campus organizations such as the Office of Minority Educational Development, Veterans Resource Center, LGBTQIA+ Resource Center, Housing and Residence Life and the Women’s Resource Center, were either present at the event or had members on the planning committee. Garfield stressed this cross-collaboration as crucial to supporting Black students, “I would say the most important [consideration] is that Black is not a monolith. And so there are several identities that intersect with Blackness.”

Students in attendance like Kofi Agyei, third-year BA explained what the holiday meant to them.

“To me, Juneteenth symbolizes a day of celebration for African American people around the country in recognition of the day the enslaved were freed. I feel like that’s a huge milestone for us, even though we still suffer today with all these injustices, I feel like we can still celebrate that there’s hope for us — that for African Americans, we have a better future,” Agyei said.

Dancers and musicians were present to showcase different aspects of Black American culture. One such performance group was the family band, Good God Drums, composed of mother Ayanna Narcisse-Williams, father Asim Narcisse-Williams, son Chioma Narcisse-Williams and daughter Chione Narcisse-Williams. Their music emphasized the tradition of rhythm and sound through West African drums.

“West African drums is absolutely important to us. We understand it to be that which allowed us to communicate with each other when our languages were mixed and when we were pulled away from our families and friends and community, when we were going through transatlantic slave trade,” Ayanna Narcisse-Williams said.

She continued, detailing the role West African drums played as a humanizing element amidst the depravity of the slave trade.

“And so when we got here, we used rhythm, we used festivals, we used rites of passages. We used our drums and those rites and it reminded us of what it was like to be free to be on our continent. And so we take that, we understand it as the first voice of the ancestors for us. And so it’s something that we can never disconnect from,” Ayanna Narcisse-Williams said.

The self-described musical family explained that they use music on a regular basis in the home to connect within their family unit and community.

“We might start with music in the morning, we might end with music at night … like my wife said, it [music] is our oldest ancestor, and we keep that going through our family line,” Asim Narcisse-Williams said.

In line with Garfield’s stated mission for the event, such performances were well received by both Black Americans and those looking to learn more about other cultures.

“This event enlightens people about and celebrates Juneteenth by just being around the things that are close to our culture like drums, the music, the food, all those things that are a part of African American culture and this event,” said Fallon Burgess, a Client Relations Manager at the Institute.