Juneteenth: A day for reflection, conversation, and learning

Honoring the University’s call to reflect on the Black experience in America.

Open palm holding a small candle

In a statement released Tuesday, Penn’s leaders urged the University community to take June 19 off from their regular work “to contemplate the historical significance of Juneteenth and how we can learn from our past to chart a more equitable path forward.” 

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the date when enslaved people in Texas finally received word that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two-and-a-half years earlier. 

“At a moment when our country is reckoning with the racism and discrimination that permeated the history of our country and universities for centuries, we are called to reflect on what we can do individually and collectively to dismantle systemic and structural barriers to equality,” said President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, and Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell in Tuesday’s statement.

We asked University Chaplain Charles “Chaz” Howard for his guidance on how we all can honor the day and for his thoughts on the present, past, and future of the anniversary. We also share a selection of recent Penn Today stories featuring Penn’s scholars speaking to issues of systemic racial injustice. 

University minister sitting on a sofa in his office by a window.
University Chaplain Charles Howard heads the Spiritual and Religious Life Center at Penn. (Image: Candace DiCarlo)


Care about the day, says Howard: “I hope that people will pay attention and study and learn and ask questions.” Read a book, watch a film, listen to a podcast, have a conversation, consider in some way the Black experience in America, he says.

Pay attention

One of the traps of holidays, Howard says, is the perception that if the day doesn’t seem to pertain directly to someone, people don’t commemorate, celebrate, or even know what it is about. For him Juneteenth is about “illuminating the candle of one’s mind. We can all do that.

“To me, it is a direct tie-in with the phrase Black Lives Matter. I think so very often this becomes an issue, rightly so, of injustices and preventing violence against Black bodies, which is a big part of it,” he says. “Another part of Black Lives Matter is paying attention to Black life and Black history and the various history of Black lives and experience in the States over the last 400 years.” 


“Learning. It’s part of repairing what has been broken. It is filling the great chasm of understanding about the Black experience,” he says. “So much about the Black journey in the States is told wrong or forgotten in our education system. What we as individuals and families can do to fill that gap, I think we must.”

Howard and his family are planning to watch a movie together tonight. His daughters have already chosen “Just Mercy,” the legal drama based on the memoir by Bryan Stevenson, who was Penn’s Commencement speaker in 2019. They also considered “13th,” the documentary on racial inequality, and “Selma,” about civil rights battles in that Alabama city. 


Howard also plans to tell some family stories to his three girls—two in high school and one in elementary—perhaps at lunchtime, going through albums of old photos, explaining one family branch that has been traced to enslaved Africans here. “One of the challenges is that it can get heavy,” he says, and he is mindful of keeping the subject accessible. 


Over the years he has talked with his family about a range of Afrocentric and Pan-African holidays, which he learned about when he was an Africana studies major as a Penn undergraduate and as a graduate student in theology. He has marked Juneteenth in various ways, from attending picnics to just having a quick conversation in the car with his daughters. 

Historical image  of a group of African Americans at Juneteenth celebration in 1900.19
A Juneteenth Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas. 

This year is different. Penn is among many universities taking the day off for reflection. Philadelphia for the first time made June 19 an official city holiday, joining cities, counties, and states across the country in recognizing the day. Juneteenth has become national news.

“Absolutely I think in the context of the times, we are reminded of the vulnerability of Black lives in ways that society was not always aware. A good portion of Americans, not just Black Americans, are examining our role in systemic oppression and our role in affirmation and liberation and fight to be antiracist,” Howard says. 

“I think it is all that more important that we, and I mean the full nation, celebrate Juneteenth. And I think we all will in ways that we haven’t before.”

Howard says he would like Juneteenth to become a federal holiday. And he hopes the day’s history will become part of school curriculums, localized to tell specific stories of how slavery ended in this nation. 

Adding to this perspective from Howard, Penn Today shares articles in support of the University statement’s call to offer the day for “the intellectual space to pause for critical reflection and honest (in many instances painfully so) conversations. We hope these conversations include how we can work together to accelerate progress at Penn, in our community, and in our country.”

Can widespread protests bring lasting change?—June 9, 2020
Amidst protests decrying the killings of Black people by police and demand for reforms, Penn Today spoke to political scientist Daniel Gillion about his new book, “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy.”

Historian Mary Frances Berry responds to the George Floyd protests—June 5, 2020
The professor of history and Africana studies spoke with Penn Today about protesting injustice and pushing for change and about the history of African American civil rights. 

portrait of woman with cropped hair and glasses
Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and a professor of history and Africana studies. (Image: Jim Abbott)

COVID-19’s assault on Black and Brown communities—May 26, 2020
Racism, inequality, and the coronavirus have combined to cause an alarming number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among African American and Latinx populations.

African Americans have been blocked from voting, but the Black vote is not a ‘bloc’—February 26, 2020
Three Penn scholars define what the “Black vote” means when viewed through history and what it doesn’t mean when viewed as an indivisible bloc.

The times and life of W.E.B. Du Bois at Penn—February 22, 2019
The work of famed author, scholar, sociologist, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who taught at Penn, has a lasting influence here and beyond. 

A time traveling Harriet Tubman, brought to life on stage—February 19, 2020
In English professor Lorene Cary’s first play, Harriet Tubman toggles between her 19th-century life and a present-day Philadelphia. What makes Cary furious, she says, is when slavery’s vital role isn’t included in the story of American history. 

Lorene Cary sits in a chair in her office beside a chalkboard
Lorene Cary

‘FACES’ captures, not defines, Black identity on campus—January 27, 2020
A group of students publish the inaugural issue of Faces of Black Penn on behalf of the Black Student League, a new magazine that features the diversity inherent in the Black campus experience. 

Angela Davis ‘refuses to give up’—January 16, 2019
The scholar and activist joins Gina Dent and Margo Natalie Crawford at the 19th Annual MLK Lecture in Social Justice to speak on feminism, trans rights, prison abolition, and the history of social justice movements. 

Gina Dent, Angela Davis, and Margo Natalie Crawford seated in discussion on stage.
Gina Dent, Angela Davis, and Margo Natalie Crawford on stage at the 19th annual MLK Lecture in Social Justice.