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For Juneteenth, graduate students highlight Black physiologists

By Slavina Goleva and Tiffany Richardson

Black and white photo of Alma Levant Hayden conducting an experiment in her lab.
Alma Levant Hayden, a Black American chemist who was one of the first women to gain a scientific position at a science agency in Washington, D.C. Source: NIH History Office.

As the Graduate Student Association of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, we were driven to commemorate Juneteenth. We have created a poster that celebrates Black excellence within the field of physiology and a YouTube video (also view in VU Box) where members of our department and university leadership share what Juneteenth means to them.

What is Juneteenth?

On June 19, 1865, enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, were notified by Major General Gordon Granger and his troop of Union soldiers that the Civil War had ended, and they had been freed. Despite the fact that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect over two years earlier, it was not enforced in Texas due to the paucity of Union troops in the state until the arrival of General Granger and his troops.

When delivering the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, Granger read the General Order No. 3 to the people of Texas, which began with the following:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

Clearly evident are the juxtaposition of the promise of immediate freedom with the irony that the message was delivered two years later than intended. Further yet, the symbolism of the moment pales in the knowledge that years of segregation followed, along with systemic and individual racial prejudices, inequalities, and traumas that have continued to plague Black individuals and communities in the United States since this initial promise of freedom.

In the immediate aftermath of Granger’s reading of General Order No. 3, many freed formerly enslaved persons left their former “masters” to pursue their first grasp of freedom or find family members near and far, while others stayed to explore the new employee-to-employer relationship that had been alluded to. Yet regardless of their chosen path, African Americans memorialized the date that the last of the enslaved Blacks in the United States were set free.

As time passed, the annual celebration on June 19th came to be known as “Juneteenth,” and served as a time for the descendants of those affected to celebrate, reassure one another, pray, and gather. Despite early resistance to the Juneteenth revelries of Black communities, exemplified by the prohibition of the use of public property to celebrate Juneteenth, over the years, the celebration grew. In large part, this was thanks to the donations and labors of early Black landowners, such as Reverend Jack Yates. Yates spearheaded efforts by the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association to make a down payment on a 10-acre tract of land in Houston, Texas, where African Americans could celebrate Emancipation Day without fear of violating segregation laws.

Thanks to the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator, Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1980; it is now a state holiday in 47 U.S. states. Although this holiday has historically been observed mainly by Blacks, it has recently gained popularity across all demographics.

Celebrating Black Excellence

Today, Juneteenth is a day to celebrate Black freedom and achievement, and to promote reflection and a commitment to further champion equity and anti-racist actions and policies in the U.S. To this end, the Graduate Student Association of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics—Slavina Goleva, Tiffany Richardson, Julia Pinette, Serena Sweet, Katrina Volk, Shannon Townsend and Cayla Ontko—has researched and put together a poster chronicling the achievements, milestones, and contributions by Black scientists in the field of physiology. This poster is intended to celebrate Black excellence in the field of physiology and to honor the tremendous hardship that these individuals had to overcome to make their contributions to the field.

All of these individuals have defied odds and faced adversity but have nevertheless persisted in advancing our knowledge of science and bettering our society. Another commonality between the featured scientists is the noble causes they rallied behind, as they often fought to increase diversity and lessen racial and socioeconomic divisions and inequities in science and in our society.

According to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, in 1999, approximately 4.3% of all doctorate recipients were Black even though they made up 13% of the general population. Twenty years later, despite making up roughly the same proportion of the U.S. population, the number of Black doctoral graduates in the U.S. increased only to 4.5%. Evidently, despite the efforts to increase diversity within the field of physiology over the last two decades­­, there is still much room for improvement.

The poster we created highlights the contributions of Black individuals to the field of physiology, both from within Vanderbilt as well as outside of it. We hope that it serves to remind us that we need to strive to increase diversity in physiology, as our scientific community has greatly benefitted from the contributions of these scientists.

The colors of the poster are based on the colors of Black History Month, which feature black, red, green and yellow. These are colors prominent in many African flags (and the Pan-African flag), many of which were inspired by the Ethiopian flag. Red represents the color of blood shed by Africans for their liberty and the shared blood of the African people. According to the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was founded in 1914, “black is the colour of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the colour of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.” Finally, yellow represents the natural wealth and beauty of sunlight.

Our list of incredible physicians and scientists is not exhaustive, so we urge others to go forth and discover the multitude of unsung individuals who are Black and in the field of physiology. Despite the efforts that these highlighted individuals and others have undertaken to increase diversity in physiology, this is only the beginning, and we can only benefit from the various scientific insights and worldviews that having a diverse workforce can bring.

Upon the suggestion of Antentor “AJ” Hinton, an assistant professor in the MPB department, we also decided to put together a video to document what Juneteenth and Black excellence in physiology mean to individuals in the department and to leadership across Vanderbilt University. In the video, André Churchwell, senior associate dean for diversity affairs, introduces the history of Juneteenth and its significance, as well as the effort we undertook to create this poster and video. We then hear personal testimonies from a variety of graduate students, staff members, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty members from MPB, as well as the deans of the Graduate School and Basic Sciences.

Some of these scientists’ testimonies focus on their personal observance of Juneteenth and the significance and symbolism of this holiday to them. Others discuss how researching Black excellence in physiology affected them and what they learned during this process. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to the video and want to recognize the vulnerability and emotional labor that all the individuals, and particularly the Black scientists who contributed to the video, put into describing their experiences and views. We thank them for starting the conversation about the role race plays in our academic endeavors and in all facets of our lives.

As Churchwell notes in the video:

“We need to continue to hear the growing chorus of anti-racism, freedom, and justice from every corner of this great land—from doctors, lawyers, laborers, teachers, and even in the ivory towers of our country where basic research is taking place. We cannot languish in our sanctuaries of science—enclosed and protected from the turbulence occurring in our society. Our voices must be part of the chorus for freedom and liberty, and we must speak, sing, and act now.”

(Access video in VU Box)

In the spirit of Juneteenth, we hope to not only promote learning about the history of Black excellence, but to also encourage you to have conversations about race broadly but also specifically in science, something that we have a societal tendency to shy away from. We are calling on you to:

  1. Support our Black community by supporting Black-owned businesses.
  2. Educate yourself on systemic and institutional racism and white privilege with resources endorsed by marginalized groups.
  3. Promote diversity in our faculty and trainees through the hiring and recruiting of diverse scholars.

We hope you enjoy the poster and video we have created. If you would like to see the poster up close, please stop by Light Hall floors 7 and 8, Robinson Research Building floor 7 or 2525 West End floor 7 to see full-size, printed versions. You can read the bios of the Vanderbilt-affiliated scientists listed on the poster here. For more information on the video, please view its full description on YouTube (or access the video in VU Box here).