WMU-Cooley Law School held a Community Conversation event on June 19 in celebration of Juneteenth, the day which marks the end of slavery and signifies freedom for African Americans in the United States. The event featured lifelong social justice advocate, historian, author, poet, and storyteller Valada Parker Flewellyn. During the event, Flewellyn began by reading two poems, "The Storyteller" and "The Evolution of the African American," from her first book, "Poetically, Just Us."
The poems reflected on the history of slavery in America, and what slavery looked like in the 1800s compared to present day with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
“The Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the greatest documents of human freedom,” said Flewellyn, noting Floyd and Taylor’s deaths called “international attention to the ongoing racial inequities in the justice system, as well as the legacy of slavery evidenced and encounters between Black people and the police.
“The public was made to clearly see how slavery took on a new form in our legal system. Mass incarceration more than 150 years after enslaved Africans and their descendants were released from bondage through ratification of the 13th Amendment, which reads, ‘Neither slave nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime, where off the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’ That slavery exception continues to encourage massive incarceration and permits the exportation of incarcerated individuals as low-cost labor.”
While the signing of Juneteenth as a national independence day by President Joe Biden in 2021 marks Juneteenth as a federal holiday, not all states recognize it as a holiday.
“Juneteenth is a day of reflection, a day of renewal, a prideful day,” said Flewellyn during the event. “It is a moment in time taken to appreciate the African American experience. It is inclusive of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities. The day encourages us to keep the idea of freedom top of mind. Juneteenth represents the joy of freedom, the chance for a new beginning. Unless we expose the truth about the African American slave experience, Americans won’t truly be free. Never must we forget the people who endured one of the worst slave experiences in human history. Every American has benefitted from the wealth Blacks created through more than 200 years of free labor. Juneteenth allows us to acknowledge that debt to encourage every former slaveholding state to make Juneteenth a state holiday, recognizing that every day in America, Blacks are reminded of the legacy of slavery.”
Flewellyn continued, “Even on the journey to discovery, to discovering who we are, Juneteenth allows us to reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we are going as a people. Never give up hope is the legacy that slave people left. It was this legacy that produced Black heroism in the Civil War and help launch the modern civil rights era. It is this legacy that we celebrate today to proclaim for all the world to hear that human rights must never again become subservient to property rights. History books have only told a small part of the story. Juneteenth gives us a chance to set the record straight.
Flewellyn echoed the words of songwriter Solomon Burke, “And there are people still in the darkness and they just can’t see the light. If you don’t say it’s wrong, then that says it is right. We got to try to feel for each other and let our brothers know that we care. We got to get the message, send it out loud and clear: None of us are free. If one of us are chained, none of us are free. To the enslaved Black people in America, the message of freedom did not ring clear until it was transmitted to every enslaved ear. None of us are free until all of us are free.”
Flewellyn is a founding member of the Alliance for Truth and Justice and an affiliate of the Equal Justice Institute. Her books include: “Poetically, Just Us” (c.1990), “Yours Truly” (c.1994), “Jack & Jill of America into the New Millennium” (c.2000), and “African Americans of Sanford,” an Arcadia Publication (c.2010). Flewellyn’s most recent publication, "For the Children: The History of Jack and Jill of America Incorporated" (c.2018), explores the history of the oldest African American family organization.
The full Community Conversation can be viewed at WMU-Cooley’s YouTube Channel.