Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community,
As we celebrate the 155th Juneteenth, I am reminded of what abolitionist and scholar Frederick Douglass said so poignantly at an Independence Day gathering in 1852:
“The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, but I must mourn.”
His point was simple: As long as millions of people were enslaved, any celebration of liberty could only be experienced as a betrayal of our nation’s promise.
Thirteen years after Douglass’s remarks—and a period of terror, war, and, eventually, glimmers of hope—emancipation finally reached the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth is a joyous occasion that commemorates the hard-fought end of slavery in the United States. But, in many ways, it is also a reminder that freedom and justice for Black Americans have far too often been delayed and outright denied.
The legacy of slavery, segregation, structural racism, and discrimination still persists in every aspect of our daily lives—and nowhere more so than in public health. We have seen that reality in stark relief this year, amid a scourge of police violence and a global pandemic that is disproportionately claiming Black lives.
But we have also seen something profoundly moving this year: an uprising of Americans of all colors and communities, who are joining together and taking to the streets to declare in one voice that Black Lives Matter. And in that declaration, glimmers of hope are emerging once more.
Although this march has been in procession for centuries, we should all be encouraged that today the crowds are larger, louder, and more diverse than ever.
That is why this Juneteenth holds a special significance. It is a celebration of centuries of struggle and progress, and it is a call to continue the fight for a healthier, more equal, and more just nation—of which every single one of us can be proud.
I am honored to engage in that critical work alongside all of you.
Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School