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DSU Celebrates Juneteenth

Kesiena Willis, a student of sacred music from Indianapolis, Ind., sang two songs at DSU’s Juneteenth luncheon. Photo by Emily Chen.

CLEVELAND, Miss. — Last month, Delta State University took advantage of the first opportunity the campus has had to celebrate Juneteenth since it was declared a federal holiday in 2021. Last year, the holiday fell on a weekend, but this year, several organizations held events to mark the day, June 19, which commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States.

Michelle Johansen, Coordinator of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said, “We wanted to have an event that brought people together. Juneteenth celebrations are about bringing people together to commemorate, celebrate, and think about the future while remembering the past.”

The DEI committee organized a lunch sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs, held in the Young-Mauldin Multipurpose Room. Dr. Andy Novobilski, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, welcomed the group, and was followed by Kesiena Willis, from Indianapolis, Ind., who sang Give Me Jesus and Deep River. Willis is a participant in the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshop.

The lunch was catered by J&W Smokehouse, and featured foods and drinks that have become traditionally symbolic to Juneteenth.

Johansen said, “The color red is very important to Juneteenth. The color has culturally symbolic significance in West Africa and came to represent the blood of the African Americans who did not make it to liberation, and those who fought for liberation.”

In addition to BBQ, potato salad, macaroni and cheese and baked beans, the menu included a red velvet cake baked by DSU senior Jada Gear, watermelon, strawberry soda, and hibiscus tea.

Johansen said, “I wanted to do this because Adrian Miller, the Soul Food Scholar, who came as part of our NEA Big Read project, had talked about the symbolism of the red food for Juneteenth. Red is symbolic from West African cultures. Hibiscus tea, which is called sorrel in the Caribbean is red, and has long been a traditional drink enjoyed for its origins in West Africa.”

The attendees watched a short video about Juneteenth, then created “conversation cubes” from templates that Johansen provided. The cubes had questions designed to encourage conversation about the holiday, social justice issues, and barriers to equity.

“It’s just a way of getting conversations going,” said Johansen. “Then I gave them blank templates to take home to create with their family or social groups.”

Johansen also created a Google Drive folder for participants to access through a QR code on the programs. The folder contains Juneteenth resources she has collected, and participants have been able to make their own contributions.

During the rest of the week, the Diversity Advisory Committee held a screening of the documentary film, The Promised Land: A Story About Mound Bayou and a book signing by Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr.

For more information about DSU’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, visit