For most Americans, July 4th is heralded as the day that the country established its independence from British rule, but for African Americans, June 19 is the day that celebrates when enslaved people established their independence from the American institution of slavery.
Members of Foothill College's Umoja program celebrated with food, music and dancing to celebrate Juneteenth, the oldest African American holiday in the United States.
K'ronna Harmon, current president of the Umoja program, said she hoped that the Umoja Juneteenth celebration would set a precedent for future events, as well as to let others within the Foothill community that the holiday exists, as many aren't aware of the day's significance. Juneteenth is celebrated each year on June 19 to commemorate the day in 1865 that the last enslaved people in America were freed in Galveston, Texas, nearly two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Harmon said she believes that the program provides a safe and communal space for any student, but especially black students, who believe in the core "ethic of love and community building." Umoja means "unity" in Swahili.
She said that building community and connection with her peers is a supportive way to navigate a school environment where most other students and faculty don't look like her or interact with the world in the same way.
Egypt Clark, an Umoja member who's in her second year at Foothill studying communications, said that the program helped her navigate social life at Foothill. When asked what she would want someone unfamiliar with the holiday to know, she said, "It's like an extra Fourth of July. Who wouldn't want that?"
Skyler McGee, a first year student at Foothill studying radiologic technology, said that this was her second year celebrating Juneteenth. Growing up, she said she didn't know about the holiday.
Juneteenth was recognized by California state officials as a holiday in 2003. Introduced by state Sen. Edward Vincent, the bill served two purposes: to remember the history of African Americans in the United States, and to celebrate life today. "Juneteenth National Freedom Day commemorates the strong survival instinct of African Americans who were first brought to this country as slaves stacked in the bottom of sailing ships in a month-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean known as the 'Middle Passage.' Juneteenth celebrations are a tribute to those African Americans who fought so long for freedom and worked so hard to make the dream of equality a reality."
While California was incorporated into the United States as a 'free' state that outlawed slavery within its borders, Peter Burnett, the first California governor elected in 1849, tried to ban black people from entering the state. According to Jan Batiste Adkins, a historian and author of the book "African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County," about 30 African American families settled and built the area that is now downtown San Jose.
Despite the role African Americans have played in Bay Area life and culture, the population has been declining in recent years as people move out of the area. Harmon and other Umoja students said they rarely see a professor who looks like them.
At the Juneteenth celebration, Onynn Dega Coleman, a freshman studying psychology, played a drum outside the room where the Umoja program meets.
"These (drums) were abolished during the enslavement period of Africans. So we were not able to communicate, were not able to step or sing," Coleman said. "So this is kind of reminding us of where we came from, and reminding us who we are. It's a remembering. Remembering our native language."