A back arrow

All Articles

A perspective on Juneteenth, from Ghana

A perspective on Juneteenth, from Ghana

Associate professor Shannen Dee Williams, history June 17, 2024
Students last June traveled to Ghana, where they joined African American expatriates in a daylong celebration of Juneteenth. Associate professor Shannen Dee Williams shares the students’ journey and how the celebration reminds us of the inhumanity that arose from violent disregard for decency, justice and the common good.

Last summer, my history department colleague, Dr. Julius Amin, and I had the great privilege of leading a two-week study abroad program for UD students in the west African nation of Ghana.

Students who participated in this program sponsored by UD’s Global and International Affairs Center had completed either Dr. Amin’s advanced history course on colonial and contemporary Africa or my advanced history course on Black women in America in spring 2023.

When selecting the dates of the Ghana summer-abroad program, Dr. Amin and I did not immediately recognize that our trip would overlap with the U.S. commemoration of Juneteenth, a traditionally African American celebration of emancipation from slavery in Texas, where enslavers formally defied President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation until June 19, 1865.

However, as we finalized the program’s itinerary, Dr. Amin and I could not help but recognize the symbolic and additional educational opportunities presented by celebrating Juneteenth in Ghana while our students explored the nation’s rich and complex history before and after independence from British colonial rule.

[We] could not help but recognize the symbolic and additional educational opportunities presented by celebrating Juneteenth.

This is especially true since Ghana — as a starting point for the European-controlled transatlantic slave trade and the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain its independence from a European nation — has longstanding connections to the African American freedom struggle.

Students at Cape Coast Castle
Students with their professors at Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, June 15, 2023.

For example, in the late 1950s and 1960s, inaugural Ghanaian president and pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, who had been educated at the historically Black Lincoln University (named after President Lincoln) in Pennsylvania, began appealing to African Americans to come to “home” to Ghana and help build the new nation-state.

Among those who accepted Nkrumah’s invitation was NAACP founder and activist Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, whose Ghanaian home and final resting place is now a museum and the headquarters of the African American Association of Ghana, a Black expatriate group that annually hosts Juneteenth celebrations in the nation’s capital city.

So, two days after our students visited the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Elmina and Cape Coast Castles in Cape Coast, Ghana, and bore witness to the architectural and undeniable horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, they joined scores of African American expatriates in Ghana in a daylong celebration of Juneteenth in Accra.

Celebrating Juneteenth in Ghana gave our students the unique opportunity to bear witness to the multilayered and complex history of Black subjugation and freedom across two continents as well as the stubborn refusal of African-descended people to abandon their histories, collective triumphs over chattel slavery and colonialism, and enduring freedom campaigns.

Juneteenth has never been simply a celebration of emancipation from slavery.

Indeed, Juneteenth — a U.S. federal holiday since 2021 and a holiday at the University of Dayton since 2022 —  has never been simply a celebration of emancipation from slavery. Like the European slave castles that still haunt the coasts of Africa, Juneteenth commemorations also serve as searing reminders of the utter inhumanity of colonizers and enslavers and their violent disregard for decency, justice and the common good.


Shannen Dee WilliamsShannen Dee Wiliams is an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. A distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, she is the author of the award-winning book Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle, published by Duke University Press in 2022.

University Libraries provides a topic guide on Juneteenth, available to the public.

Hero photo of Elmina Castle by Peace Itimi on Unsplash; inset photos courtesy Shannen Dee Williams.


So what do we do with Juneteenth?