Panelists gather virtually on Zoom for a Juneteenth symposium
Courtesy of Tina Yu

The University of Michigan recognized the start of the Second Annual Juneteenth Symposium on June 15, a four-day event held in collaboration with the Ann Arbor branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With “Celebrate, Educate, Inspire” as this year’s theme, the symposium will take place from June 15 to June 18 and will include a series of speeches, panels, workshops and performances to celebrate Black excellence and bring attention to issues that concern the Black community. The majority of the events will be held in a hybrid format with pre-registration required. 

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans following the end of the Civil War. Though the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for all enslaved peoples in the rebelling states went into effect in 1863, slavery was not officially ended across the United States until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. In Texas, slavery continued for two years after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, until General Order No. 3 — which is dated June 19, 1865 — informed the state’s enslaved people of their legal freedom. Juneteenth has been celebrated on June 19 across the United States since the 19th century, but it was not until June 17, 2021 that President Joe Biden signed Juneteenth’s status as a federal holiday into law.  

On the first day of the symposium, activist Opal Lee, also known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” talked about her journey of fighting to make Juneteenth a federal holiday in her opening keynote speech. Since 2016, Lee has led 2.5-mile walks in various cities to bring attention to Juneteenth. The walks symbolize the number of years that it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach Texas in 1865. 

In September 2016, Lee left Fort Worth, Texas, and began her 1400-mile trek across the United States, ending on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. She hoped to speak directly with President Barack Obama about making Juneteenth a federal holiday. In 2021, she started a petition for a federally-recognized Juneteenth holiday on petition received support from multiple celebrities, including Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Usher. Her years of activism eventually led to a Juneteenth holiday being signed into law in 2021—with Lee in attendance.

During her opening keynote speech, Lee talked about the moment she found out that Biden would sign the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. 

“P. Diddy helped me get 1.5 million signatures to take to Congress,” Lee said. “We took them to Congress and we were ready to take that many more when we got the word to go to the White House, that the president was going to sign the Juneteenth bill into law.” 

Lee discussed the role of education in freeing people from homelessness and unemployment, as well as providing the freedom to be who they are. 

“The recognition is for all of us to be free,” Lee said. “We realize that we have a common goal, and that is to dispel the disparages that we have in this country. I’m talking about (how) we need books in the education system to tell the history as it occurred. We can erase history, and so we need to learn about it. We need to be able to be sure (history) doesn’t happen again. Freedom is the thing that I’ll cherish.” 

Lee said freedom should be valued, celebrated and fought for by everyone. 

“What we need to know is this is not a Black thing,“ Lee said. “(It) is not a Texas thing. Freedom is for all of us, and none of us are free until we’re all free … So (white people have) got to learn that, hey, this is for you too. And I advocate that we celebrate freedom from the 19th of June to the Fourth of July.” 

The Juneteenth Symposium also featured a panel discussion between LaNeisha Murphy, a mental health and wellness counselor at the U-M Medical School specializing in treating depression, anxiety and trauma; Jonathan Shepherd, a mental health professional in psychiatry and chief medical director at Hope Health Systems; and Steven Vinson as the moderator. The panelists discussed race-based trauma and the need to normalize mental health care in the Black community. 

According to Murphy, race-based trauma is “any type of traumatic experience that one has, and it can be a direct experience or it could be vicarious or secondary trauma that they experience based upon their race.” Although race-based trauma is not formally recognized as a mental health disorder, Murphy noted that it can cause reactions that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“It can lead to something called race-based traumatic stress,” Murphy said. “This is where you have a series of stress reactions, where it’s hyper-vigilance, where it’s avoidance of certain people or situations, always being on guard. It is maybe you have irritability or anger or any of these types of things that really look like post-traumatic stress disorder.”

During the panel discussion, Shepherd highlighted “potential, cope, work and contribution” (“PCWC”) as the four tenets of mental health. He believes that racial (race-based) trauma can significantly and negatively affect one’s PCWC, consequently hurting one’s mental health. 

“When you’re faced with racial trauma, that means that your potential now can get damaged or hurt,” Shepherd said. “That means that your ability to cope with the stresses of life can be overwhelming … When you’re faced with racial trauma, you wonder to yourself, ‘Am I truly making a contribution to our society?’” 

Murphy said racial trauma can also cause physical health issues that are then passed down through generations. According to Murphy, Black people often experience genetic health issues such as hypertension and diabetes, which become sources of further trauma. 

Shepherd went on to discuss access to healthcare in the Black community, saying that while he is glad to see an increase in the proportion of Black Americans seeking mental health care, he believes the lack of access to general healthcare among the Black community is also a significant issue.

“The lack of access to care is still a great barrier for people of Color,” Shepherd said. “​​It shouldn’t be. As I was thinking this morning, healthcare in this country is a privilege and not a priority, and that must change. That mentality must change.” 

Murphy said it is important for people to face their emotions and seek help if they need it. 

“I think there’s so many times we try to avoid what we’re actually feeling because we have to keep on keeping on,” Murphy said. “We avoid the sadness, we avoid the anger, we avoid the fear, and we don’t actually feel our feelings because we don’t have time … We have to really take those that time to stop, and if we can’t manage that on our own, then we seek help and get help with it.” 

Murphy said she believes more Black Americans are seeking mental health care after realizing they do not have to always hold themselves to higher standards compared to non-Black people. 

“I think we have now sometimes given ourselves permission to be human,” Murphy said. “I think at some point, we have now found parity with our non-people of Color counterparts. And I think that’s that first step into us having parity and equality and equity with everyone else. We don’t have to do everything four to five times better.”

Daily Staff Reporter Tina Yu can be reached at