By Christia Mercer
Juneteenth was first celebrated 150 years ago on Friday, June 19, and remains the most widely recognized commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was the law of the land beginning January 1, 1863, the enslaved people of Texas only began to learn about their freedom a year and a half later when union soldiers embarked at Galveston on June 19th, 1865 and announced the “absolute equality of rights” between slave owners and slaves.
As a kid growing up in Texas, I adored Juneteenth. Besides the food and talk of freedom, I reveled in the dramatic difference a piece of knowledge could make. As I swatted mosquitoes and navigated watermelon seeds sitting cross-legged under a huge Texas sky, I imagined the waves of emotions washing over newly freed Americans. My Texan ancestors had been transformed from a condition of unbearable restriction to one of infinite possibility in a single act of knowing.
I’ve been a professor at Columbia University for more than 20 years, and still revel in the transformative power of knowledge. However corny it sounds and however circuitous the route, I was motivated to leave my white suburban community and become the first in my family to go off to college because I wanted to explore knowledge’s possibilities. I’ve published books and won teaching awards peddling the addictive headiness of its power.
But the lessons of Juneteenth linger. Knowledge about freedom flowed slow as molasses from Washington D.C. through the Confederacy. Slave-owners were keen to keep their unpaid laborers ignorant. When enslaved Texans finally did hear about emancipation in 1865, the vast majority couldn’t read a single word of the documents announcing it. Although some slave-holders were motivated by Christian convictions to encourage Bible-reading among slaves and a handful supported schools on their plantations, the vast majority feared the power that would come with knowledge.
Politicians across the South passed literacy laws, making it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. The South Carolina Act of 1740 acknowledges the “inconveniences” that may attend “having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing” and warns that “every such person or persons” engaged in “such offense” will be fined “the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.” Virginia made it illegal in 1819 to congregate “at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching.” Anyone caught doing so would suffer “corporal punishment… at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.” Although many slaves found clandestine ways to acquire and teach literacy, they did so in challenging circumstances, facing appalling dangers. They took courage from knowledge’s power.
After decades of educational deprivation rooted in Jim Crow segregation, the Supreme Court declared in 1954 – nearly 90 years after that first Juneteenth — that “separate but equal” schools were discriminatory. But during the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, education has not become equal. Educational deprivation increasingly casts its net over low-income people of every color in every state. As Susan Dynarski at the University of Michigan has recently shown, a “poor teenager with top scores and a rich teenager with mediocre scores are equally likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.” Roughly 21 percent of low-scoring affluent high school students graduate from college compared to only 5 percent of the poorest students.
Knowledge may be transformative, but some have to struggle much harder than others to get it. My low-income students at Columbia have to navigate the stress of classes while bearing the burden of poverty. They receive financial support to cover tuition and basic costs, but for those students whose parents have no money, it’s not enough. One young woman managed to get into Columbia despite being homeless in high school only to suffer the humiliation of not having money for food when her meal card ran out weeks before the end of the semester. There are enough Columbia students facing this problem to form a Facebook page so their better-off peers can more easily share meal cards and groceries.
Another student who couldn’t afford to rent – much less buy — an expensive science textbook, spent an evening in the library the first week of the semester scanning every single one of a borrowed book’s 300-plus pages. Days later he realized that some of the pages were too blurry to make out. And I am still haunted by the tall lanky first-year student who would sit ensconced in an oversized hoody as he dazzled the class with his brilliance. It was devastating to all of us in the seminar when he was forced to return home because his brother, the family’s breadwinner, was falsely accused of a crime. My student was too involved in taking care of his mother to return to college by the time his brother got out of jail. I think of him often. There are many more stories of low-income Columbia students facing such challenges.
And Columbia is not alone. Students from impoverished families at Stanford, Harvard, Yale and other elite schools report feelings of “loneliness, alienation, and plummeting self-confidence.” In a recent class, roughly 25 percent of my 125 students said severe economic and class differences adversely impacted their academic lives.
Because schools are not responding effectively enough, low-income students have begun to speak out, often in solidarity with their financially better-off classmates. There is now a series of Class Confessions associated with schools such as Brown, Stanford, and Columbia universities, where undergraduates discuss the impact of economic and class differences on campus life.
At Columbia, a small group of students have just formed the Students’ Audit, which intends to press Jim Valentini, the dean of Columbia College, and other administrators to attend to the needs of low-income students and hold the school accountable if they don’t. I hope students in other universities follow suit.
Whatever their struggles, at least my Columbia students have a chance for a fine education. Millions of other young adults have no such opportunity. As university fees continue to rise, more and more low-income people find it impossible to acquire any higher education at all. An activist friend canvassing in Harlem shared the story of a young woman eager to take college classes. She had enrolled a few times, only to have to drop out – and lose the money she’d already spent on fees – because she had unexpected bills.
Undocumented and formerly incarcerated people face equally high barriers. In many states, undocumented people are afraid to enroll in colleges, and formerly incarcerated citizens are unwelcome. In New York State, for example, there are roughly 119,000 people on probation, many having been locked away for minor drug offenses during the tough-on-crime policies that began in the 1990s. All formerly incarcerated people must include information about their criminal record when applying to any one of the 64 schools in the State University of New York. Formerly incarcerated applicants are three times more likely than others to leave their application incomplete and so not be considered for admissions.
When Union soldiers embarked at Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865, effecting the first Juneteenth, they were carrying knowledge that would be used by thousands of Texans to change their lives. But the “absolute equality of rights” that was supposed to follow emancipation has been slow in coming. Low-income, undocumented, and formerly incarcerated people across the country – whether in rural farming communities in Kansas, small-town Texas, or New York City — are eager for the chance to educate themselves and transform their lives. To be sure, the powerlessness of slavery exceeds that of poverty, but the point about transformative knowledge remains: everyone deserves a chance at it.
(Correction: It was 150 years ago, not 130 years ago as an earlier version said, in which Juneteenth was first celebrated; fixing dates)