Juneteenth: Celebrating history while recognizing the continued need for action

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

By Veronica Smith, Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center patient navigator serving patients of African descent

"… Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. Instead, it's a celebration of progress. It's an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, things do get better. America can change."

Barack Obama

Juneteenth, or June 19, commemorates the official end of slavery in America. African Americans and the Black community have celebrated this significant event for many generations. However, it was not declared a federal holiday until 2021.

Juneteenth National Independence Day is the first federal holiday approved since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Achieving federal recognition is a reminder that the work done by our ancestors and our continued work is not in vain — though we must keep the momentum going.

"O’er the land of the free …" is part of the last line of our country’s national anthem. On June 19, 1865 — more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — enslaved people in the Confederate states finally received notification that they were "free." This was just the beginning of our ancestors finding their way in a society that was not created for people of color to thrive.

Many African Americans looked forward to creating families, getting an education and celebrating their faith, which had carried them through the darkest days. But the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough to shift the deeply rooted paradigm of racism on which slavery was built. It was followed by ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to protect the rights of African Americans. Blood, sweat and tears were shed in fighting for our fundamental human rights and freedom. Our fight is not over. Though not as overt as slavery, systemic racism continues to plague our society.

Racial disparities profoundly affect whether people in underrepresented populations receive timely access to healthcare. Regular screenings, early detection and timely treatment are vital to good outcomes in cancer care. According to the American Cancer Society, African Americans are:

  • More likely to be diagnosed with advanced-stage disease, which is usually more costly and challenging to treat.
  • More likely to experience delays in treatment.
  • Less likely to receive recommended treatment.

These issues can be attributed to many factors, including access to care, socioeconomic conditions and historical mistrust in the health care system within African American communities.

Veronica Smith

In my role as a Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center patient navigator serving people of African descent, I build trusting relationships with people and their communities. I connect with patients early in their journey to help them navigate the system and advocate for themselves.

Mayo Clinic values diversity and inclusion of all patients. We understand that more work must be done to bridge the gap and create trust within African American communities. The first step toward change is to acknowledge there is a problem.

On June 19, we pay homage to our ancestors for their unwavering dedication and sacrifices in fighting for the freedom of African Americans. For me, Juneteenth is a day of reflection, hope and a reminder that work still needs to be done. The key is to move forward together to fight against systemic racism and achieve equity and inclusion for all people.

Learn more

Learn more about Juneteenth and how to celebrate on these websites:

Read these articles to learn about cancer health disparities that affect African Americans and how participating in clinical trials and screening can help reduce those disparities:

Learn more about patient navigators at Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.

A version of this article was originally published on the Cancer Education Blog on Mayo Clinic Connect.