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Celebrating Black history and Black futures

Past and present protesters with Juneteenth: freedom day, written across them.

While recently recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, Black people have long celebrated the historical importance of Juneteenth. From kitchen tables to campuses of Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Juneteenth is well revered in the Black community as an important narrative thread with a rich and complex tapestry. This blog provides a brief overview of Juneteenth and the role that HBCUs have played as guardians of Black history and Black futures.  

Looking back at the history of Juneteenth and HBCUs

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas learned that they had in fact been granted their freedom in 1863 and had spent two additional years in bondage at the hands of exploitative plantation owners. While the history of the holiday is a bitter tale that involves immense trauma and deceit, we have grown to celebrate and reflect on the day as the first semblance of freedom Black people were granted, albeit nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence boldly offered freedom to everyone else.

It is not a coincidence that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) came into prominence around the same time. HBCUs were established to provide higher education opportunities to Black Americans. This was necessary, as Black students continued to be unwelcome at institutions of higher education, despite legislation that promised otherwise. The first HBCU was established in 1837 (the African Institute; now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), and a few others were established in the mid-1800s. However, the majority of HBCUs originated from 1865-1900, the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, with the greatest number of HBCUs founded in 1867.

Many history books in American schools fail to include the history or acknowledgement of Juneteenth, but at HBCUs, students get a much deeper and contextualized presentation of what it has meant to be Black in America. Taking a multi-faceted look at Black history that goes beyond notable moments in the Civil Rights era makes HBCUs powerful repositories of historical data, chroniclers of Black lives, and centers of Black culture.

Looking to the future

HBCUs are also about the future. An HBCU Midnight Brunch during Juneteenth weekend at the Roots 101: African American Museum, a nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky, exemplifies this fusion of the past and what is to come. The event marks a historical milestone, but will also feature nonprofits and young people coming together to learn about and create non-fungible tokens, which are digital assets known as NFTs that use blockchain technology.

“When we talk about history, we always say we teach the past while we teach the future. HBCUs have always been the key to the Black community,” says Lamont Collins, the CEO and Founder of Roots 101.  “We have to pour into that next generation. It’s a natural fit with technology and the history of Black colleges. Juneteenth is about liberation and we’re going to be deliberate and continue to grow.”

Since George Floyd’s death and the subsequent racial reckoning, many funders are recognizing HBCUs as leaders of Black communities. A number of foundations, corporations, and high net worth individuals have started funding HBCUs for the first time over the last two years.[1] This philanthropic funding is important, as it frees HBCUs from needing to focus on keeping the lights on, and allows them to focus on the future.

ABFE President and CEO Susan Taylor Batten believes in the power of collaboration across sectors to uplift the Black community. “Juneteenth has been an important and celebrated holiday for Black people in this country for many years,” says Taylor Batten, who is also a graduate of both Fisk University and Howard University. “To recognize the holiday, we encourage foundations and donors to support HBCUs and other Black-led organizations that are the keepers of this history and hold the promise of our future.”

As the nation takes time to learn about and celebrate Juneteenth, remember to acknowledge the past and simultaneously look for ways to help build the way to a brighter future.

[1] ABFE and Candid’s upcoming research report will unpack philanthropic giving to HBCUs over the last two decades and offer more details about recent waves of funding. 


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