A year ago, the U.S. established its newest national holiday commemorating the end of slavery as a sanctioned enterprise. Curiously, the date we celebrate this is not the date on which President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863), which declared more than three million slaves to be free; it is not the date on which General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederacy (9 April 1865); it is the date on which Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, bringing the news that slavery had been abolished, and prompting jubilant celebration among former slaves—19 June 1865.
It is hard even to imagine the depth of that jubilation.
So, Juneteenth marks a milestone in our journey toward justice and equity. A journey that is still underway. In my life, I have seen continued progress. Mainly glacial, but sometimes torrential. I was born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1956. Drinking fountains were still segregated, White and Colored. The immense racist carving that today disgraces the side of Georgia’s otherwise magnificent Stone Mountain was a work in progress; school field trips took us to see it underway, as part of learning “Georgia History.” Yet today, many people worry about teaching young children about systemic racial injustice, historic and current. As southerners would say, “Bless their hearts.”
In 1998, I was on business in Savannah, Ga. My family travelled along and we had the privilege to spend two glorious night on Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of the planet’s truly magnificent places. While in Savannah, we spent a day as tourists: riding horse-drawn carriages; doing house tours; eating family style at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. As we walked back to our hotel, my eight-year-old son looked up at me and asked, “Dad, do they still have slavery here?” Boom! He had spent a day where all the people being served were White, and all the people doing the serving were Black. Not slavery, but not right. It is amazing what the eyes of an eight-year-old child can see.
So, this Juneteenth, let’s look for and jubilantly celebrate progress. Like the recent courage displayed by Jeff Ewelt and his team at Zoo Montana, in facing hateful reactions to a Pride month celebration featuring a Drag Queen Story Hour, and the shower of support they are getting from their colleagues and friends across the AZA community. Like the amazing IF/THEN story that Dr. Bridget Coughlin has shared in this month’s digital Connect. Like the largest-ever Diversity Summit at this year’s AZA Mid-Year Meeting and the AZA board of directors adopting a strategic plan focused on DEIA.
Three groups that are helping our community progress and involve AZA members are the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals, Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Science, and Minorities in Shark Sciences. These groups were also recently featured in Connect.
Like the sprouting of broader gender and racial representation among leaders in our community; currently more like a scattering of sunflowers or milkweed in a cornfield, but definitely spreading and bringing a brightness and vibrance to our culture and conversation.
And let’s make a commitment to keep living our strategic plan’s Fifth Promise:
We will advance diversity, equity, access and inclusion practices in the profession and integrate these as values into our organizational cultures.
Because 19 June 1865, wasn’t that long ago, and we’re still on a journey toward equity and justice.
Dan Ashe is the president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Back to All Stories