The messenger may have been murdered en route, or slave masters may have suppressed the news to ensure the harvesting of one more crop.

Theories abound as to why news of their freedom was withheld from enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect and more than two months after the Civil War ended.

Juneteenth — a portmanteau of June 19, that day in 1865 when Galveston slaves finally learned of their freedom — became an annual day of celebration among African Americans in Texas. It has since expanded internationally as a day to recognize the end of slavery in the United States and to celebrate the culture and achievements of people of African descent.

To help commemorate the lifting of that final insult to the catastrophic and enduring injury of slavery, the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences has launched the Juneteenth Scholars Program, an initiative aimed at exploring the role of the holiday in history.

“The Juneteenth Scholars Program recognizes the importance of understanding connections between the historic holiday and contemporary struggles,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the college. “These critical challenges include institutional racism, the exposure of structural inequality, and support for vulnerable populations.”

Initiated in response to recent momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement, the program will support research by faculty members on topics such as emancipatory movements, structures of oppression, institutional silence about violence, the courage of activists, and the need for systemic structural change in the United States and globally. 

The inaugural class of Juneteenth Scholars include faculty members from a range of disciplines in the college:

  • Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, an assistant professor of religion and culture, will explore political and theological visions of justice, with a focus on the apocalyptic political theology of W. E. B. Du Bois as a way to imagine Black futures beyond current forms of white supremacy.
  • Andrea Baldwin, an assistant professor of sociology, will focus on the history of Black suffering and resistance and the role of higher education in developing corrective and prescriptive measures in care and healing.
  • Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies in the Department of Political Science, will examine the effectiveness — including issues of motivation, organizing strategies, and political efficacy — of student-led movements advocating for social and political change.
  • Lucien Holness, an assistant professor of history, will research the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League — a secret society that rescued captured runaway slaves — to learn whether there are any direct links between Black-led fugitive slave rescues, the formation of Black militias, and Black regiments raised during the Civil War.
  • Allan Lumba, an assistant professor of history, will focus on conditions between the 1870s and the 1890s that led to the eventual emergence of Jim Crow laws, aggression toward Asian workers migrating into the United States, the last military engagement with Native American resistance, and the subsequent colonization of territories in the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
  • Desirée Poets, an assistant professor of political science, will explore the impact of COVID-19, racial injustice, and community organizing in the Maré favela complex of Rio de Janeiro, with the goal of advancing understanding of processes of democratic social change.
  • Edward Anthony Polanco, an assistant professor of history, will research the history of Black men and women in Mexican colonial society as they worked with, and at times against, indigenous people to survive and resist Spanish oppression and racism.

These scholars will receive funding for research conducted between July 1 to August 10 of this year, along with support for an undergraduate researcher. The faculty scholars and the students will be invited to present their research at a college forum during the next academic year.

“We are hoping to make the Juneteenth Scholars Program a permanent form of faculty support in the college and at Virginia Tech,” Belmonte said. “Humanity is at the core of the work in our college, and notions of justice are woven into the fabric of so much of our research. The program is also reflective of the college’s larger commitment to early-career faculty on the path to promotion and tenure.”

For their part, the founding Juneteenth Scholars have long explored the issues the holiday represents.

“Although my community observed Juneteenth each year, we knew it as Black Liberation Day,” Faulkner wrote in her program application. “It was less a celebration and more a call to action. Our community leaders emphasized the ongoing struggle for equality and explicitly condemned the racism and poverty that deeply affected everyone around us.”

One hundred and fifty-five years after the Galveston slaves learned of their freedom, Faulkner added, liberation goals have not been fully achieved, and much more work needs to be done.

At the same time, Faulkner wrote, Juneteenth is more than a commemoration of physical freedom: “It is also a recognition of our progress, our resilience, and our commitment to fighting against all forms of oppression.”

Written by Paula Byron

Amaryah Shaye Armstrong
Amaryah Shaye Armstrong is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Culture.
Andrea Baldwin
Andrea Baldwin is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. Photo by Leslie King.
Brandy Faulkner
Brandy Faulkner is the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies in the Department of Political Science. Photo by Leslie King.
Lucien Holness
Lucien Holness is an assistant professor in the Department of History. Photo by Leslie King.
Allan Lumba
Allan Lumba is an assistant professor in the Department of History. Photo by Leslie King.
Desirée Poets
Desirée Poets is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. Photo by Leslie King.
Edward Anthony Polanco
Edward Anthony Polanco is an assistant professor in the Department of History. Photo by Leslie King.