What I Think of When I Think of Juneteenth

Editor’s Note: The John A. Hartford Foundation is collaborating with ASA to advance equity in aging by supporting ASA Rise, a 20-week social justice and leadership program for rising leaders of color in aging, and via the development and dissemination of equity-related, partnership-based thought leadership through ASA’s Generations platform. This blog post is the sixth in that series.

I have a few vivid memories from my high school AP U.S. History class concerning African Americans. Particularly, I remember when studying the Civil War being struck by how long it took to recognize the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Even after President Lincoln declared all enslaved people free on paper on January 1, 1863, that hadn't necessarily been the case in practice. It was two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas learned of their freedom. This was two months after the Confederate Army surrendered to the Union on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox. Though this meant the end of the Civil War, it was only when the Union Army marched into Galveston, Texas, that slaves in the state learned of their freedom.

I try to imagine myself as an African American slave in 1865, learning that two and half years after its issuance, and two months after the end of the Civil War, I was free of slavery. I imagine the euphoria I might have felt for me and for my family, the tears I would have shed, and the celebrations I would have enjoyed. I imagine, like the newly freed slaves, participating in the demonstrative processions that led to a new, annual celebration on June 19—aptly named Juneteenth.

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

My next vivid memory from my studies was learning about the landmark SCOTUS decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (May 18, 1896). This decision upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which became the legal basis for the next 50 years for racial segregation in the United States, until 1954, when another landmark decision by SCOTUS in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. This ruling paved the way for the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

Not only are these historical moments ingrained in my head, I also often think of my late mother, Dorothy McCollom Dickerson, a nurse and educator whose life exemplified a commitment of service to the most vulnerable in our homeplaces. Like many Black women growing up in pre–Civil Rights era America, my mother overcame the systemic obstacles intertwined in the triple burden of poverty, racial discrimination and sexual politics to graduate high school with honors in three years, to train as a RN at the historic Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, to lead the opening of the first intensive care unit in Cincinnati as Head Nurse at the VA Hospital, and to become Nursing Director for a new community-based nursing home dedicated to serving older adults in Cincinnati’s Black community. She accomplished all of this before I was even born in 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

After my maternal grandmother died in 1971, and faced with a childcare crisis, my mother pivoted careers to become an educator so she could have more time to spend raising me and my sister. While nursing was her calling, education was her passion. Returning to university to complete a Master’s of Education, she quickly found a career trajectory that took her from teacher to administrator, where for 20 years she served as Director of School Health Services for Cincinnati Public Schools before retiring. She often said her life’s motto was “To do what I can, for all that I can, while I can.” And she did!

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

My mother’s career, and mine, would not exist without the Emancipation Proclamation and the annual celebration of Juneteenth. For me, Juneteenth is a reminder to pause and remember the African Americans who came before me and to celebrate and embrace my freedom.

My mother’s life motto was ‘To do what I can, for all that I can, while I can.’ And she did!

But while I celebrate Black folks being “free-ish” since 1865, I must acknowledge that with the current fragility of democracy and the outright assault on the voting rights of Black and Brown citizens, a global health pandemic still exposing disparities in healthcare, access to technology and other conditions that affect the economic security of people of color, last month’s vigilante-style mass murder of predominantly older Black folks while grocery shopping in Buffalo, the triumvirate of caregiving, climate and housing crises; and a long list of harassment, discrimination and injustice running through American history—Black lives have demonstrably not mattered as much as other lives. There is still a fight ahead of us.

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

For me, this Juneteenth is a reminder of how far we still have to go as a nation to make sure the rights and protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution are not only equally applied, but equitably applied to Black lives. Despite certifying Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Black Americans continue to face systematic challenges such as the racial wealth gap, disproportionate incarceration, exposure to gun violence and persistent health disparities. It is a reminder, too, of the progress we need to make in realizing the ideals of the nation’s pledge of allegiance to the American flag that affirms the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”

Moreover, it is a time for organizations across all industries to pause and look inward to ensure that they are not only providing equal opportunity for jobs, training, development, promotions, positions in leadership, etc., but that they are doing so equitably.

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

I am proud to be leading the effort at ASA to reduce the racial leadership gap in the field of aging as program director for ASA RISE, a six-month social justice and leadership development program for emerging BIPOC leaders. We have 31 fabulous Fellows in the inaugural ASA RISE cohort who have joined me and the program’s “othermother,” Auntie Cynthia Banks, on a transformative personal and professional journey where we have learned from and taught one another.

Our two ASA RISE groups—The Accomplices and The Co-Conspirators—have grappled with systemic oppression, antiracism, access, equity and allyship. We began our work together interrogating allyship—what it is and isn’t—and the DEI modalities most associated with allyship programs. We then developed an equity and inclusion lens to apply to our work, utilizing it as an analytic tool to inform case studies of our respective organizations as we sought to uncover and understand the racial equity challenges unique to the field of aging—the structures, policies, practices and behaviors that sustain unequal outcomes for older adults.

I am so optimistic about this next generation of leaders and their liberatory praxis on how to make aging more equitable.

As we learned a framework for Leading with Equity, our focus was on how courageous leadership can transform systems by deepening their capacity for change and addressing equity challenges. And along the way, we dropped in some contested social theory, too—intersectionality and critical race theory—for good measure.

Our Fellows are completing a group capstone project on how to deploy allyship as a strategic mechanism to address equity challenges in the field of aging. I am thankful for the opportunity to have engaged weekly with our ASA RISE Fellows, who have bravely shared their lived experiences as we interrogated the systemic obstacles and barriers faced by BIPOC folks in the field. While I will miss our weekly meetups, I am so optimistic about this next generation of leaders and their liberatory praxis on how to make aging and aging organizations more equitable to improve the well-being of older adults.

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

So, this June 19, I humbly call upon my colleagues and all in the field of aging to pause to consider reframing (or perhaps reinforcing) your definition of “equal” as a pit stop on the never-ending journey to “equitable.”

This is what I think of when I think of Juneteenth.

Patrice Dickerson, PhD, is director of Programs & Thought Leadership at the American Society on Aging and leads the ASA RISE program.

Photo: Dorothy McCollom Dickerson with her daughters Shawn (at left) and Patrice, taken in 2006 at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing Class of 1956 50th reunion banquet. 

Photo courtesy Patrice Dickerson.