Books on display at Wheeler Park in celebration of Juneteenth Saturday afternoon. Jarett Orr/Daily.  Buy this photo.

In collaboration with the Ann Arbor branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the University of Michigan concluded its first-ever Juneteenth symposium on Saturday. The virtual symposium featured a variety of live-streamed speeches, performances and workshops occurring all throughout the week leading up to the holiday, which is celebrated on June 19. 

During the run of the symposium, on Thursday, President Joe Biden signed legislation marking Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time. On Friday, the Ann Arbor City Council also unanimously voted to recognize Juneteenth as a city-recognized and commemorated annual holiday.

Juneteenth celebrates the liberation of the last enslaved people in the United States. On June 19, 1865 — approximately two months after the Civil War ended and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — a Union General in Galveston, Texas, informed the last enslaved people in the United States of their emancipation.

The University’s Juneteenth symposium was sponsored by the Rackham Graduate School’s Strategic Action Lead Team,  the Association of Black Social Work Students, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, the Center for Social Solutions and the Ann Arbor branch of the NAACP.

Rackham student Kianté McKinley, co-chair of the symposium, said she felt it was significant to make the Juneteenth Symposium a campus-wide event so that all students could feel comfortable at the University. 

“It was important to make it a campus-wide event because the University of Michigan is a predominantly white institution, but there are Black students on this campus,” McKinley said. “To really make (Black students) feel like they belong on this campus, we should celebrate holidays that involve the Black experience.”

On Monday, at the opening livestream, William Hampton, the president of the NAACP’s Ann Arbor branch, recalled the history of Juneteenth for those attending. Hampton also looked back on the history of Juneteenth celebrations in Ann Arbor, noting that Ann Arbor has been commemorating Juneteenth in Wheeler Park for 27 consecutive years now.

“Ann Arbor’s Juneteenth celebration is one of the oldest celebrations in the history of the state of Michigan,” Hampton said at the symposium’s opening. “Wheeler Park is named for Al Wheeler. Al Wheeler is thefirst, and up until now, the only, African-American who has ever, ever held the office of mayor of the city of Ann Arbor.”

Besides being elected as the first black mayor of the city in 1975, Wheeler was also the first African-American-identifying individual to earn tenure as a professor at the University, which he did in 1959 for his work in microbiology. Wheeler was named a professor emeritus by the Board of Regents in 1982 and Wheeler Park was renamed posthumously in his honor five years later.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s symposium activities included performances of spoken word by both students and professors, gospel performances and a virtual exploration of Black art and culture at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

The fourth day of the symposium, entitled “Racial Justice Call to Action,” was dedicated to student-led workshops in which participants could actively learn about and practice anti-racism, self-worth and self-care, as well as Black mental health awareness. The workshops were organized and presented by the Association of Black Student Social Work Students and the School of Social Work.

Law and Rackham student Hannah Lefton, who helped run a workshop called “Showing Up for Racial Justice — White Fragility: How to be Anti-racist,” said it was important to have interactive sessions led by students during the symposium.

“The live workshop was cool because it was a little bit more interactive. We were able to have a Q&A and have some discussions in the chat,” Lefton said. “I think having student leaders do it also makes it a little bit more accessible for a lot of people.”

Dr. Robert Sellers, U-M Chief Diversity Officer, was the keynote speaker for the final day of the symposium which was also its closing live stream. As people happily celebrate Juneteenth, Sellers said it is important to recognize the continued work necessary to end systemic racism. 

“(The emancipation of enslaved people) was a joyous and celebratory event. And as we commemorate the event we must also recognize the Black joy, hope and healing that not only started with the event but continues today,” Sellers said. “It’s also important to recognize… while June 19, 1865, marked an important date ending slavery, it did not mark the ending of systemic racism.”

Sellers also alluded to the continued struggle for racial equality in the United States, celebrating the resiliency of the African American community and encouraging members of the community  to honor the legacy of Juneteenth by continuing to fight for a more just tomorrow.

“So as we stand here today, we’re still in a struggle to get our humanity recognized by our own government and our own country,” Sellers said. “That means in order for us to truly embrace and have our freedom, we will always have to fight for it. Because freedom has not … and never will be, free.”

Dr. Martino Harmon, U-M Vice President of Student Life, gave the closing remarks for the symposium. Harmon concluded the week of events on a positive note, inviting participants to reflect on how the symposium, and the holiday, contribute to a greater understanding of history and individual identity. Specifically, Harmon said everyone should focus on improving equity in their individual communities, and should continue to celebrate hope and progress every day of the year.

“Just like (June 19) 1865, (today) we celebrate freedom and we know that we will have a better country, a better society, and a better Michigan,” Harmon said. “Juneteenth Symposium 2021 may have come to a close, but our joy, hope and healing continues on.”

Included on the list of events for the symposium was a two-hour march for freedom from Fuller Park to Wheeler Park in Ann Arbor on Saturday. This is an annual event put on by the Ann Arbor NAACP. 

McKinley, who attended this year’s march, said he appreciated meeting people outside of the U-M community at the march.

“I met a lot of Black federal judges, Black politicians, Black folks that have been living in Ann Arbor for years that have just now retired,” McKinley said. “So that was awesome, just meeting people within the community, outside of the school’s campus.”

Daily Staff Reporter Justin O’Beirne can be reached at