From June 15 through 17, the University of Redlands held its inaugural Juneteenth celebration, exploring myriad aspects of Black history and culture. The three days of virtual programming were jointly presented by the Black Student, Faculty, Staff, Administrator, and Alumni Association (BSFSAA); Black Student Union; and Campus Diversity and Inclusion.
Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with School of Business Enrollment Assistant Tekia McNeil, a founding member of the BSFSAA who chaired the Juneteenth planning committee, about the importance of the celebration and what the holiday means to her.
Bulldog Blog: What is Juneteenth and why is it celebrated?
Tekia McNeil: Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively freeing all slaves. However, in Texas, slaves weren’t released for two years. In 1865, the military was sent to advise the enslaved that they were free and to protect them while they scattered from those plantations because their lives were in jeopardy for leaving. We celebrate that day because that's the actual day they were freed.
BB: The significance of Juneteenth and its celebrations have received more press in recent years. Why is that?
McNeil: I believe everything stemmed from the revolution after the death of George Floyd. The country was unable to ignore the systemic racism, and the level of protesting reached a global scale. So many organizations grew out of those protests—the BSFSAA being one of those. Through our formation and meetings, we were in alignment with the world in making a change. George Floyd’s death gave us a platform and a chance to start over in a world where racism is not the first thing that separates us. It gave us an opportunity to open up and talk about the differences among us and have an open forum with our allies. The aim was to correct some of the wrongs we have experienced within our own personal and professional lives as well as through being part of the rest of the world.
BB: Last week, President Joe Biden signed a bill that recognizes Juneteenth as a federal holiday. What does that recognition mean to you and why is it important?
McNeil: First of all, just hearing you say those words gives me chills. It felt as though we are really changing something. I do know that we have a long way to go, and there are a number of different, important bills on the table right now. But, for one moment, our history has been acknowledged. Signing that bill into law recognizes that yes, we were slaves and yes, we were freed. And we need to celebrate that freedom. On top of all of that, we were in the middle of celebrating Juneteenth for the first time at the University of Redlands, and it just felt like a historic moment. It was and is monumental.
BB: You were asked to chair the University’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration this year and worked alongside Interim Director of Diversity Initiatives Monique Stennis. What were your responsibilities and what was it like to plan this event during the COVID-19 pandemic?
McNeil: First, we had to figure out whether or not we could do it in person. Then we had to figure out how to include everyone in the programming. Eventually, we were able to figure out how to work together, with a number of campus stakeholders and organizations, like a well-oiled machine. It ended up being bigger than even we had anticipated. BSFSAA President Joy Clark, Monique Stennis, [School of Business Sr. Associate Director of Enrollment] Pam Allen, and I all pulled a lot of weight. It went very well, and I learned a lot. It was amazing to speak with Opal Lee, who has been at the forefront of the campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. We spoke with her on Wednesday morning for an Instagram live interview, where she said that if the bill gets signed into law, I will be on the right hand of Joe Biden. It wasn't even 24 hours later that she was standing right next to the president. It was the most surreal experience I have ever had.
BB: What was your favorite event?
McNeil: I had so many favorites. I loved learning about the untold stories of Black history in Redlands. It brought me to tears. The Black in STEM event was also amazing. School of Business Professor Shindale Seale and [Naslund Endowed] School of Education Dean Mario Martinez spoke with Myiesha Taylor, M.D., Chanel Johnson, and Trevor Thomas, D.D.S., about their careers in STEM fields. Myiesha is the real-life inspiration behind [Disney’s] animated children’s series Doc McStuffins. On top of all of the wonderful advice she gave us as a doctor, it felt like we were meeting a celebrity. Mario did an amazing job during that conversation, and he was really on our team for the whole event. He got our programming schedule approved by the President’s Cabinet, secured funding, and was the person who made a lot of things happen behind the scenes. We’re very grateful for him.
BB: From your perspective, why was it important to give the University community a chance to celebrate Juneteenth?
McNeil: As we both know, over the last year, organizations and higher education institutions have struggled with a number of issues in regard to race and equity. When the BSFSAA was created, our goal was to bring awareness of the needs of Black people—our history, experiences, and existence—and allow the University to embrace us and work to facilitate a welcoming atmosphere for new students. We want to welcome our new and current students and allow them to feel comfortable on campus and give them a safe space to ask questions. Celebrating Juneteenth was just one way we’re working to create that space.
BB: Were there any other highlights for you?
McNeil: The flag ceremony felt like a big milestone. We were able to find a double alumna, Sgt. Rhiannon Brown ’14, ’17, from the School of Business Rancho Cucamonga campus who was eager to bring California Army National Guard personnel to facilitate a color guard ceremony. Ms. Shandra Dixon performed "Lift Every Voice and Sing." [Vice President of Administration] Ms. Michelle Rogers and [Interim Director of Event and Office Services] Mackenzie Dawes were instrumental in planning the ceremony, which took place on the steps of the Administration Building. During the ceremony, we were able to stand together, in person, in solidarity after a horrible year. The President’s Cabinet was there, and it really felt like a time of healing. At that moment, we were just human beings standing together.
BB: What are you looking forward to for next year’s programming?
McNeil: This will be an annual event, so I’m looking forward to being able to get together in person next year and celebrate Juneteenth. I can’t wait to feel people next to me and hug them. It was all such a loving experience—I can’t wait for next year.
BB: In the meantime, what can the University community expect from the BSFSAA?
McNeil: When we had a call for programming ideas for Juneteenth, we received so many that we’re planning to implement some of them throughout the year. We plan to host events that give more clarity to our goals as Black people in education and that grant everyone the opportunity to understand each other on different levels so we have better communication across our community.
Learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion at the U of R.