EECS Juneteenth celebration features song, readings, and a proposal for change

In observance of the holiday that marks the end of chattel slavery, faculty, students, and alumni performed music, shared personal stories, and presented a proposal to the EECS chairs for initiatives to enhance diversity and equity and realize systemic equality in the department.

Juneteenth, Celebrate Freedom. Pan-african flag drawn with brush in grunge style Enlarge

On June 19, over 300 people attended the virtual Juneteenth celebration hosted by the EECS department. The event was organized in partnership with the Graduate Society of Black Student Engineers and Scientists (GSBES) and supported by Michigan Robotics. 

The celebration was initially proposed by Herbert Winful, the Joseph E. and Anne P. Rowe Professor of Electrical Engineering, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and ECE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead, who emceed the event. 

“The goal was to create community, to express solidarity with Black students in these turbulent times, to educate ourselves about Juneteenth, to agitate for positive change, and also perhaps just to celebrate!” Winful said. “I had heard from some students that the past several weeks had been heavy and emotionally draining. I felt we needed something that could be both uplifting and purposeful, with real proposals for action. I am told that it was a smashing success! I am proud that EECS, to the best of my knowledge, was the only department in the university that had a real Juneteenth Celebration, and I am delighted that the Graduate Society of Black Engineers and Scientists played such a big role in it.”

I felt we needed something that could be both uplifting and purposeful, with real proposals for action.

Prof. Herbert Winful

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It recognizes June 19th, 1865, which is when Union soldiers finally landed at Galveston, Texas, one of the most remote of the slave states, and brought news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. 

The 13th amendment, which officially ended slavery and protected against any legal challenges to the presidental order, was later ratified on December 6th, 1865. 

Juneteenth has long been celebrated by members of the Black community and is a paid holiday in Texas. Today, 47 states officially recognize Juneteenth in some way, and a proposal to make it a full-scale federal holiday has been brought before Congress. The Ann Arbor Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held its first Juneteenth Celebration in 1994.

Today, Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom and achievement with the goal of promoting and cultivating knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.

The EECS celebration began with a performance of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” ECE alum David Tarver and Mechanical Engineering alum Jasmine Tompkins sang while Winful provided accompaniment on piano. 

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was originally penned as a poem by writer, activist, and future NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900, and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson in 1905. It was first performed in public in the Johnsons’ hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, as part of a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900, by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal.

Tarver (BSE MSE EE 1975 1976), founded the company Telecom Analysis Systems (which he later sold for $30M), and became a community organizer and entrepreneurial activist after growing a telecommunications business to a market value in excess of $2B. He established the Fred and Louise Tarver Scholarship Fund to honor the sacrifices made by his parents and help others achieve their dreams. 

Tompkins, a Detroit native, graduated in 2015 from the Mechanical Engineering department. She’s worked at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for the past five years, and she will be moving to Los Angeles, California, to continue her engineering career and to spend more time pursuing her interests in music and film.

After the anthem, Winful spoke about the history of Juneteenth. The Emancipation Proclamation was then read by EECS Prof. Emeritus Leo McAfee, who was the first Black professor hired by the College of Engineering in 1971, Kwesi Rutledge, a doctoral student in ECE, Wami Dosunmu-Ogunbi, a doctoral student in Michigan Robotics, and Nathan Louis, a doctoral student in ECE.

Shira Washington, Recruiting Coordinator in the Office of Student Affairs at the College of Engineering, then introduced Camille Burke, Lydia Mensah, and Yves Nazon, who shared some of their personal experiences. 

Burke, who graduated this spring with a BSE in Electrical Engineering, shared how difficult it can be to be the only Black person, especially a Black woman, in the engineering classroom environment. She said often times, people would not believe she was studying electrical engineering, reiterating her perspective she shared earlier for ECE’s Black Lives Matter piece:

I think it is important for instructors at all levels to take an extra step with their Black (and minority students in general) to show that you see them, whether that’s getting to know them, where they came from, asking them how the feel in the classroom, where they’re at with the material, remember our names. Because we really believe often that you all could care less if we get through the class.

Being a Black female engineer, I am not just doing it for my own interest necessarily. I have to be a body in that space, a face they see, oftentimes the only one, to show that we do belong in these spaces, you should see us in these spaces. So I can’t quit, I can’t show weakness, I have to be here and finish to make a point. And that can be a lot of pressure especially when at times you don’t feel welcome or acknowledged by your professors and peers.

Mensah, a doctoral student in Material Science and Engineering, emphasized how so many Black engineers and innovators have had their impact erased over time. She urged people to learn about their achievements and value their impact in the field.

“As Michigan engineers, we aim to be leaders and the best,” Mensah said. “In today’s climate, we must do more to be victors against racism and inequality, not only in the world, but also on our campus.”

As Michigan engineers, we aim to be leaders and the best. In today's climate, we must do more to be victors against racism and inequality, not only in the world, but also on our campus.

Lydia Mensah, MSE PhD student

Nazon, a doctoral student in Mechanical Engineering and President of GSBES, spoke about the toll that racism takes on Black students. Events, such as the killing of George Floyd, have deeply upset him and interfered with his ability to work. He talked about how, in response, he chose to be a key member of many events, including this Juneteenth celebration, despite the impact that has had on his personal life and research productivity.

Rutledge and Louis then read a proposal, drafted by members of GSBES, to the EECS chairs for proposed actions to increase the diversity of the department and improve recruitment efforts for Black students and faculty. 

Key requested actions include:

  • With consent of the individuals, release data on: the number of Black graduate program applicants and how many received offers, as well as data on home universities of Black applicants and which universities are targeted for recruitment
  • Release data on matriculation, degree completion, and post-graduation outcomes for Black students
  • Request for a new administration position in EECS whose role is to prepare the above data and develop new interventions designed to improve the current representation
  • Request to implement a “Rooney Rule” in faculty recruitment to ensure at least one underrepresented minority is invited to interview for each faculty slot 
  • Make a public report every June 1st on status of above actions

You can read the full GSBES proposal here, and the responses from both departmental divisions in this story.

Mingyan Liu, the Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of ECE, and Peter Chen, Interim Chair of CSE, indicated their interest in working with students to address the challenges highlighted by the GSBES proposal.

“We are fully on board with the goals you’ve outlined,” Liu said. “Please rest assured that we will look at this proposal very carefully, and work with our faculty, staff, and student groups, including yours over the next three weeks on a response and set of actions. We want you to be partners in this process as we move toward common goals.”

“We share the same goals,” Chen said. “As students, faculty, staff, and administrators, we may have different roles here, but we are fundamentally on the same team moving in the same direction. We look forward to working with you and others to make progress on these issues.”

EECS plans to respond to the requests by July 10th, and EECS DEI Leads Herbert Winful and Wes Weimer, along with the ECE Committee for an Inclusive Department Chair Fred Terry, are coordinating with GSBES, faculty, and others for both short-term transparency and long-term change.

Winful then concluded the event. 

“Thank you all for attending,” Winful said. “I hope you learned something new. Let’s look out for each other and work to make our community more supportive and inclusive.”