Celebrating Juneteenth – Continuing Our Movement

By Florencia Greer Polite, MD 

Today Friday, June 19, marks Juneteenth - a commemoration of the “freedom” of all people living in the United States.

The history of slavery in the United States is a complicated one and very much impacts the current predicament we find ourselves in.  Interestingly, Juneteenth relates back to Abraham Lincoln and the conversation that I had with my daughter Lena about the abolition of slavery. 

In the history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million Africans survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.  While less than 400,000 of those slaves arrived in America, by 1860, the US's black population had increased to over 3.9 million slaves, most of which were children born into slavery.

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; it was intended, many were told, to free all slaves. Abraham Lincoln was honest though that his actions had one intent: to preserve the Union rather than to abolish slavery.​ Lincoln wrote: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Pres. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared more than three million slaves living in the Confederate states to be free. More than two years would pass, however, before the Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and freed the last of the country's enslaved residents. The next year Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas and in 1980, it became a holiday in Texas.  Now celebrated in multiple states and other countries, Juneteenth has come to be a celebration of freedom and the culture of African-Americans.

In the last two weeks I personally have felt inspired, optimistic, and determined.  The University has engaged in a number of difficult conversations around race and policing, the Association of Minority Physicians at Penn Medicine issued a letter about the expectations for change which was signed by over 150 faculty members of color, the diversification of the portraits petition has gained traction and we should soon see some structural changes around the university.  And across the country we have seen changes as well.   Monuments and street names celebrating confederates have been removed/changed in a number of states, confederate flags - a long-time symbol of white supremacy - have been banned at certain military installations and at Nascar races, some police officers engaging in brutality caught on camera have been expeditiously suspended or terminated, work groups focusing on police reform and use-of-force guidelines have been instituted in a number of cities, choke-holds have been banned and "duty to intervene" laws have been passed.  All of this in the last two weeks. Imagine the possibilities if we continue in this direction.

At the kneel on June 5th, I asked each of you to think of 2-3 actionable items that you would commit to doing to address systemic racism in this country.  I hope that you all can use today to further commit to doing your part to address the inequities in our community and in our healthcare system. As the travesties committed against black people in this country continue, we must be steadfast in our commitment to creating a community where equality is the norm not the exception. This will only come once we reconcile our history, understand our present and create a different future.

Today I ask that at lunch, each of you reflect on our collective history and what specific changes you would like to see at Penn Medicine.  Consider sending yourself an email that states what change looks like and how you plan to contribute to the change you want to see.

Thank you for all you do. 

Florencia Greer Polite, MD 
Chief, Division of General Obstetrics & Gynecology
Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology

Penn Medicine’s Commitment to Taking Steps to a More Inclusive and Just Community: https://uphs.informz.net/informzdataservice/onlineversion/pub/bWFpbGluZ0luc3RhbmNlSWQ9OTM5OTc4MQ==