Juneteenth is about proclaiming what Black people have been saying for centuries: that Black lives matter, meaning that African-American humanity is not debatable, said Hasan Jeffries, PhD, during his keynote address at Mass General Hospital’s Juneteenth celebration earlier this month. Jeffries, an author, professor and host of the podcast “Teaching Hard History,” discussed the holiday’s history and its significance today. 

On June 18-19, 2020, Mass General marked Juneteenth—also known as Black Emancipation Day—commemorating the order from Union Gen. Gordon Granger to emancipate slaves in Texas. Once a confederate state, abolition in Texas was resisted throughout the Civil War and for more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. As the Civil War came to an end, Texas was ordered to free its slaves on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth is the annual observance of this date and it began as a regional celebration and a day of remembrance. Jeffries said this recognition has continued in the form of the civil rights, and the Black Power and Black Lives Matter movements.

During the talk, Andre Green, a member of the Somerville School Committee, spoke about disparities created by schools that are funded through local taxes. He noted that half of all homeowners look for “good schools” when buying, but schools that receive this label are often based on standardized test scores, and no variable predicts test scores better than parent income. Green said replacing standardized tests with the question, “How many bathrooms are in your home?” would produce similar results. 

Green, whose mother was a nurse who worked nights, noted that low-income parents who work night shifts or multiple jobs often are unable to be involved in parent-teacher associations or fundraisers, and it costs more to educate low-income students because of the cost of English language learning programs and other fees that parents are unable to chip in for.

Both Jeffries and Green suggested striking while the iron is hot, and using the conversations happening locally and nationally to ensure that anti-racism and advances against disparities are embedded in area institutions. Jefferies encouraged health care providers to acknowledge the way biases are learned and must be conscious of these biases rather than aiming to be “colorblind.”