What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, the oldest known commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, takes place annually on June 19th. As part of your, your family’s, and/or your educational institution’s anti-racist efforts, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the importance of this commemoration within your sphere of influence.
Also known as African American Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Emancipation Day, this celebration began in Galveston, Texas in 1865 when those who had been enslaved were, two and a half years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, made aware of their freedom by way of General Order No. 3. US Major General Gordon Granger, commander of the Headquarters District of Texas, had arrived in Galveston the previous day and issued the following order:
“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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”General Order No. 3, 1865
In spite of the ominous foreshadowing of Jim Crow seen in the last statement, the overall message and hope for true freedom led to celebrations that turned into annual, Texas events. Soon, as Texas Africans Americans relocated to other states, African Americans all over the country joined in the celebrations.
Legal Status of Juneteenth
In 1980, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official, state holiday. This past year, other states such as Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Virginia, Kansas, and Illinois have joined in issuing official proclamations to declare June 19th as “Juneteenth Freedom Day” or “Juneteenth Recognition Day.” Furthermore, legislators from both houses have just reintroduced a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
How is Juneteenth Celebrated?
Juneteenth is usually marked by parades, picnics, family gatherings, reflection, and rejoicing, not only by African Americans but by people of all races, nationalities, and creeds. How can your school system join in the celebration?
If School Is Still in Session
- Teach your students about Juneteenth. Some books you can read with your elementary age students include: 1. All Different Now: Juneteenth, The First Day of Freedom by E.B. Lewis, 2. Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper, and 3. Juneteenth by Rachel Koestler-Grack. With older students, you may want to study General Order No. 3. What does the order communicate? Why was the order important? Why do you believe that enslaved people in Texas did not know about their emancipation before the order was read to them? How did the order foreshadow Jim Crow?
- Compare the Fight for Emancipation with the Black Lives Matter movement. How are they similar? How are they different? Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who recently sponsored the bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday stated, “the struggle for true Black liberation continues.” What does he mean by this?
- Have students write letters to their legislators about why Juneteenth should be a national holiday. Massachusetts Senator Markey has stated that making Juneteenth a federal holiday “is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past and ensure equal justice in the future.” However, not everyone agrees. Have your students research the history of Juneteenth, and then, write persuasive letters to their congressmen about why Juneteenth should become a national holiday.
- Use Juneteenth to commemorate the accomplishments of African Americans. Don’t make Juneteenth a commemoration of slavery but a celebration of African American achievement. Study about African American artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner. You may want to choose to read to your students Henry Ossawa Tanner His Boyhood Dream Comes True by Faith Ringgold. It is a book for elementary aged students about how young Henry grows up and fights prejudice to become a famed artist. Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison is a book that talks about famous African American women from various fields.
If School is Not in Session:
- Send home a letter to commemorate Juneteenth and include a list of activities that parents can do with their children to talk about the celebration. (Even if school is still in session, the district should still send home a letter to commemorate the holiday and reiterate its anti-racist stance.)
- Spend time learning about the holiday yourself and consider what you could do to strengthen your work as an anti-racist educator.
- Contact your legislator to lobby for making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
It is time to reckon with our historical past so that we can emerge from the current racism pandemic a more equal society. Acknowledging and celebrating Juneteenth with our students is one way we can move in that direction.