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    Recognizing Juneteenth and Celebrating Higher Education Inside the US Federal Correctional Institution in Atlanta

    July 5, 2024

    Written by Dr. Kipton Jensen, Professor of Philosophy & Lead of the Higher Education in Prisons Initiative at the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership (AYCGL)



    Morehouse AYC-HEP student cohort inside the USFP in ATL (Spring 2024).

    The incarcerated men — scholars and thespians as well as musicians and poets — who attend the humanities classes offered by Morehouse inside the US Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Atlanta recently staged an event designed to recognize yet critically reconsider the history and meaning of Juneteenth. The prison chapel was packed with incarcerated men who participate in the educational programming, administration and staff, including Warden Thomas, and representatives of the Morehouse AYC-HEP Program. The organizers of the Juneteenth event sought to raise awareness and deepen the collective resolve of those in attendance. The event included a one-act play, spoken word, musical selections, the Black National Anthem, an essay contest, and an earnest request to expand higher education inside the FCI in Atlanta.

    The topic of the essay contest, which harkens back to Frederick Douglass’ 1852 iconoclastic oration on the meaning of the 4th of July, was “what is the meaning of Juneteenth to me?” The contest winner, Mr. Washington, likened the Emancipation Proclamation—whether declared by President Lincoln in 1863 or belatedly disclosed in1865 in Galveston, whether in the Jim Crow South or 21st century America—to an “enticing cup with a hole in it” and a “cover up.” Celebrating Juneteenth inside prison, it must be said, is bittersweet. “The information that was poured into this cup was a misrepresentation of our African history. Our fingers are aching from trying to block the holes in this leaky cup.” The corrective to this cover-up, suggested Mr. Washington, and a belated remedy to this “miseducation,” is a more accurate historical account and a compensatory if not emancipatory form of education. Mr. Washington, who read his essay at the event, concluded: “I believe that Juneteenth needs to be celebrated with newly designed cups that hold our history in its purest form. We must reject the cup and contents, which were created by slave-owners. We must celebrate the knowledge that we contain within ourselves, and we must pour our experience of this truth into each other. As we struggle for equality, fighting for our rights and true freedom, we must not allow the celebration to turn into a cover-up. . . . Cheers to Freedom, in Celebration of Understanding.”

    The emcee of the event, Mr. Leach, encouraged us to remember Marcus Garvey, who was himself incarcerated in the FCI in ATL in 1925, and who insisted that “a people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.” The ancestors were recognized and honored. Second and third prize went to Mr. Wilson and Mr. Fields, respectively. Each of their essayists emphasized the exception clause to the 13th Amendment and the rise of mass incarceration in America: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Mr. Wilson claimed to “feel the compassion of Ida B. Wells, as she strategizes her anti-lynching campaign and the courage and selflessness of our Black people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, demanding civil rights,” but acknowledged also that his “spirit aligned to the insurgencies of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.” Quoting from the Ten Point Platform, the essayists encouraged educators to “teach our true history and our role in the present day society.”


    Juneteenth Essay Contest Winners: Mr. Washington (center), Mr. Wilson (center-right), and Mr. Fields (center-left).

    Warden Albert Thomas and his executive assistant, Mr. Coleman, said that they sincerely appreciated how ‘the students had become the teachers’ and acknowledged the value of higher education to the mission of the FCI in Atlanta. Warden Thomas said that he shared the aspiration expressed by the students of transforming the USFP in Atlanta into a flagship program of higher education within the Bureau of Prisons. The Juneteenth event was followed by a lunch prepared by the men in the culinary arts program. W.E.B. Du Bois claimed that “two things and only two things are necessary—teachers and students. Buildings and endowments may help, but they are not indispensable.” But providing higher education in prisons also relies on an inter-institutional collaboration between BOP or DOC administrators and the colleges or universities who deliver and accredit the classes as well as the students inside and the broader community.

    Morehouse College has been teaching college-level humanities classes, together with our local partners at Common Good Atlanta, and enrichment seminars at the FCI—formerly US Federal Penitentiary—in Atlanta since the Summer of 2023. Dr. Nathaniel Norment, who directs the Black Ink Project at Morehouse, taught the initial class on “writing our personal narratives.” Drs. McClinton and Jensen co-taught a course in philosophy in the Fall semester of 2023, Dr. Heru Heq-m-Ta taught Africana History in the Spring of 2024, and Mr. Masud Olufani is presently teaching Art History. Dr. Norment was named ‘Volunteer of the Year’ by the FCI in 2023. In addition to the faculty who teach, several of the AYC-HEP Student Ambassadors from Morehouse have participated in classes and mock job fairs and peer-mentor activities at the FCI in Atlanta. Together with students and faculty at Morehouse as well as administrators and staff in the BOP, the AYC-HEP Program at Morehouse College is committed to extending the benefits of higher education to students inside the FCI as well as the GA-DOC prisons we serve in Georgia.



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