Wearing a bright cyan blue dress that was likely sewn in Ghana, Salem State Social Work Professor and Department Chair Shannon Mokoro shared that she had recently traced her lineage to Nigeria, with some DNA indicators to Ghana and Cameroon.
Mokoro shared this experience with a room of over 50 colleagues gathered for Salem State’s first formal Juneteenth Commemoration, on Wednesday, June 19 at 12:30 pm. A second commemoration was held later in the evening at 5:15 pm.
According to Mokoro, DNA lineage tracing is often the only way for descendants of slaves to learn of their ethnic background and tribal affiliations. Her experience shines a light on the reality of the ongoing ramifications caused by the transatlantic slave trade in the United States.
Part of that reality is the misconception that slavery ended in the U.S. with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In fact, slavery continued through June 19, 1865, a date that 45 states recognize as the official holiday, “Juneteenth.”
This event was created to generate awareness of Juneteenth and bring people together in reflection by the Black Employee Resource Group (BERG), an organization designed to offer a cultural support network for Salem State employees of African heritage.
“We thought it made sense to create space to acknowledge this historical date and invite everyone from the community,” said Nicole Harris, associate dean for the school of education and BERG co-chair.
Members of Salem State and the surrounding North Shore community who self-identify as African, African American, Afro-Latinx or Caribbean American, and their allies, were invited to the commemoration.
This included Salem State President John Keenan, who valued the opportunity to join with colleagues on this date.
“Our first Juneteenth Commemoration was a powerful reminder of what the enslaved endured and how this painful history still has an impact today,” he said. ”Through shared words and song, we were able to come together and reflect as a community in a moving and meaningful way.”
During the program, world languages and cultures administrative assistant Ronnette Wongus introduced attendees who were invited to share tributes, which included song performances, poetry readings, speeches and prayers as part of the commemoration.
“Self-identifying members of the African Diaspora have been invited to lift their voices,” Wongus said.
And lift their voices they did. Franklin Chilaka, BERG co-chair and assistant director of First Year Experience, chose to sing the song “Gonna Be Alright” by Mali Music.
Chilaka sang, “It’s a song about hope for you/It’s a song about faith/I see all that you are going through/And it’s gonna be alright.”
Other tributes included associate professor of healthcare studies Patrice DeLeon's recitation of an official poem of Juneteenth, Keep Your Heart in the Blood, Harris’ recitation of Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise and speeches, which included prayers and pledges, by Mokoro and visiting English professor Gwendolyn Rosemond.
Rosemond, who teaches courses like African American Literature I and II and Introduction to College Writing, offered empowering words during her tribute and asked all in attendance to pledge to never allow the mass mistreatment of human beings to happen again.
Rosemond said, “We celebrate those on whose shoulders we stand. We celebrate their strength, resilience, and endurance. Pledge here to never let those circumstances arise again. I say this on June 19, 2019 very deliberately. Rise up, step up out of your comfort zone and say, ‘I won’t let it happen again.’”
BERG members are hopeful that this event was the first of what becomes an annual commemoration going forward.
For more information about BERG, email the group at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion work at Salem State University, please contact email@example.com or Rebecca Comage, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer.