WMU News

Juneteenth celebration set for Dalton Center

June 12, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- "The Persistence of Liberation Struggle" is the theme for West Michigan's Fourth Annual Juneteenth Celebration at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 22, on the main Western Michigan University campus in Kalamazoo.

The family-oriented event, which will take place in the Dalton Center Recital Hall and outdoors at the nearby Fountain Plaza, is co-sponsored by WMU's Division of Multicultural Affairs and African Student Association.

The organizer and primary sponsor is Ujima Enterprises Inc. UEI, a Kalamazoo-based nonprofit educational, cultural and community service organization, operates an after-school and weekend youth development program incorporating an African-centered curriculum.

Juneteenth, the oldest African American observance originating in the United States, commemorates the end of slavery in America. As with other independence-related holidays around the world, the celebration is a major recognition of freedom.

"It's a unique cultural expression similar to the Chinese New Year and Cinco De Mayo," says Dr. J. Baraka-Love, founder, president and chief executive officer of UEI. "It's a way to observe and share the proud history of African Americans, pass on the legacy of culture to our children, honor our ancestors who never gave up the struggle for freedom, and honor African American educators who include our children in their loving dedication to the education profession."

The keynote address for this year's Juneteenth will be given by Alhaji N'jai, a WMU doctoral student pursuing a degree in chemistry with an emphasis in environmental chemistry.

N'jai, a native of Sierra Leone, Africa, came to the United States in 1996 after receiving a one-year foreign study scholarship from Kalamazoo College. War was raging in his homeland when he finished the program, so he began his graduate studies at WMU.

After earning dual master's degrees in geographic information systems and environmental resource management in 1999, N'jai enrolled in the doctoral program in chemistry. He has taught several undergraduate chemistry classes and has received such honors as a Monroe Brown Life Science Graduate Research Award and awards from the Graduate Student Research and Graduate Student Travel funds. Currently, he is a full-time student research assistant and an active member of the African Student Association.

As part of the Juneteenth celebration, UEI will present its 2003 national Liberator Award for Leadership in Education to three African American educators "who go the extra mile in teaching, research or advocacy."

The recipients are: Linda Comer, a former administrator with both the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids public schools and now regional vice president for the Leona Group LLC, a charter school management company based in Arizona; Dr. Lewis Walker of Kalamazoo, WMU professor emeritus of sociology and former chairperson of the Department of Sociology; and Dr. Benjamin C. Wilson of Kalamazoo, WMU professor and director of Africana studies.

Juneteenth also will feature authentic traditional African dances performed by the Ujima Afrikan Dance Troupe and a buffet dinner. The dinner is included in the price of admission, which is free for children under age 5 and costs $5 for children age 5 to 11, $10 for adults, and $8 for students of any age with student IDs.

Juneteenth grew out of the spontaneous celebrations that took place on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, after enslaved Africans in the state were finally informed they were free. Africans in other states had been told of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation a full two and one-half years earlier, but those in Texas had been kept in the dark and in bondage.

Now a legal holiday in that state and celebrated in countries around the world, Juneteenth is variously observed by a day, a week and in some cases, a month of activities. These activities typically focus on family and education.

"Education has always been a top priority in the African American community and now it's the liberator," Baraka-Love says. "We're free and equal under the law, but still have a long way to go educationally, economically and socially."

For more information about Juneteenth or Ujima Enterprises, contact J. Baraka-Love at (269) 345-1534 or <barakal@aol.com>.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 269 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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