Juneteenth

Juneteenth

Juneteenth

Juneteenth has been in the news recently after President Trump announced plans to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June nineteenth (he has since changed the date).  This day is known as Juneteenth and is a holiday that celebrates the end of slavery.  On this day in 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas were freed.  General Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, for the last time in Galveston TX, freeing the slaves of Texas.

A quick search on Twitter about Juneteenth shows tweets that say things like “I was today years old when I learned what Juneteenth was. How about you?” and “How many people learned about Juneteenth in school? I didn’t!”  While the Twitterverse might not be the most scientific data source, it is a fairly good representation of crowdsourced knowledge – what people are talking about, and what they know.  And what Twitter shows is that a large number of American adults are just hearing about Juneteenth for the first time.

As researchers who study hard histories (bios can be found here and here) and teach pre-service teachers about these periods of time, anecdotal impressions from Twitter reinforce what we already knew: Most Americans do not know much, if anything, about Juneteenth, largely because American public schools fail to teach students about this pivotal event for African-Americans.  Black history is woefully undertaught in schools, with “Black history projects” being assigned in isolation during the month of February.  It is taught as a subject entirely divorced from American history, except for some brief overlaps: slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights. 

Juneteenth is a part of Black history that can be taught to all ages. The announcement by General Granger brought about a jubilee for the black men and women of Galveston, and word spread quickly throughout the state and region.  By the next year, Galveston’s black community began commemorating the day they learned of their freedom. 

The next few decades proved to be challenging as the complicated years of Reconstruction (link to pop article about what this is) were followed by the oppressive era of Jim Crow (link to pop article about what this is).  Throughout these years, Black (and occasionally white) Texans would gather in public spaces to remember the promise of freedom that Juneteenth brought.  Juneteenth remembers a time when enslaved people became free, in contrast to Independence Day which commemorated the freedom of white Revolutionary Americans.  It was, and continues to be, a day to reflect upon the words of Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Although Juneteenth recognizes the end of slavery in Texas, it has spread to become the pre-eminent emancipation commemoration in the United States.  In the late nineteenth century, local communities throughout the South recognized their own emancipation days, but these holidays declined as the former slave population died. During the Second Great Migration (link to pop article about what this is), the holiday spread as the Texas population moved Northward, especially to California and the upper Mid-West.  Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and Milwaukee (are there different links for each of these?) began their own commemorations mid-century.  This holiday had meaning for communities in states that did not have their own emancipations (Jamaal will ask what meaning it had.  I don’t know the answer?!) and reminded migrants of the best parts of their lives in Texas. 

Meanwhile, commemoration nearly died out in Texas as the Civil Rights Movement opened Fourth of July celebrations to black communities.  However, in 1980, Texas freshman Congressman Al Edwards sponsored HB 1016, making Juneteenth a state holiday.  After this successful legislation, Edwards led a movement to spread Juneteenth nationally and recognize it as a state holiday across the US.  As of 2019, 46 states have resolutions recognizing Juneteenth as a commemoration for the end of slavery. 

While the festivals are well known for their barbeque, red soda, and music, (I think if we don’t link here it sounds like a bad stereotype!!) for Black communities that sponsor them, the day is about remembrance of slavery and emancipation.  The days are filled with joy and a commitment to community-building.  The parades, performances, and speeches recognize local achievements, while they also recall the sadness of the past and present, and commit to work towards a better future.

With this history as the backdrop, as well as a consideration of current events, there is a clear case to be made to reform history curricula in order to cover Juneteenth. To do this in public schools, curriculum developers, administrators, teachers, and parents need to take a hard and unsentimental look at what they learned.  A google search for “Black History month lesson plan” gives a variety of activities for grades K-12 that focus on African American Icons, The African-American Migration Experience, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These lessons are misleading, presenting a whitewashed vision of the ways America treated Africans.  Rather than lesson plans about Emmett Till, Loving Day, Jim Crow, and the brutality of the Civil Rights movement, students learn that peaceful African American men and women easily made change, as if overnight.

Although teaching materials about Juneteenth exist, they largely overlook the complicated history of the North Atlantic slave trade, slavery as an American institution, and what it meant for enslaved people to be free.  Top search results for Juneteenth include making a Venn diagram about Juneteenth and July 4, and a Juneteenth reading comprehension worksheet.

To teach about Juneteenth, and Black history more broadly, educators need to be able to have direct conversations about a dark time in America’s history, whose legacy continues to plague our country today.  There are good resources available online, though the lessons with the most value take more time to teach and require some background learning on the part of the teacher.  Facing History and Ourselves has several units that ask students to grapple with new and complex information about Black history.  Teaching Tolerance has an excellent article about Juneteenth, with plenty of links to additional information.

It shouldn’t take controversy over a presidential rally to bring attention to a vital day in American history, but now that Juneteenth has a spotlight on it, it’s time to make some changes.