What is Juneteenth, and how can educators recognize the first newly declared federal holiday since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was passed into law in 1983?
Most school children learn that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, ending slavery. However, what is less commonly known is that even though the proclamation legally ended slavery, most enslaved individuals did not actually gain their freedom until years later.
Texas was the last state to enforce the law ending slavery, and Juneteenth commemorates the date in 1865 when enslaved persons were actually emancipated. Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to oversee a smooth transition from slavery to freedom.
The first celebrations of freedom occurred in Texas, informally. African Americans began gathering and having picnics to celebrate the anniversary of June 19, 1865. The day was known as Jubilee Day, and as celebrations continued annually, other names were adopted: Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day.
The grassroots observations of the day started spreading across the country with gatherings largely remaining the same: People gathered for picnics and barbeques. Slowly, other elements have been added, like the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, the singing of traditional songs such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and readings of selected works by Black writers like Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou. Rodeos, parades, street fairs, and Miss Juneteenth contests ensued — perhaps due to the month of the year, and perhaps also emblematically, the celebrations seem to be held outside, symbolizing the freedom that is being honored.
A flag commemorating the day was created (see graphic for an early version; in 2007, the date “June 19, 1865,” in white text was added on the edge of the right border), and in 1996, Representative Barbara-Rose Collins introduced a bill into the House of Representatives proposing recognition of the day as a Federal Holiday. That bill would be signed into law almost a quarter of a century later when President Joe Biden signed legislation on June 17, 2021.
Now, as an official part of the nation’s history, Eddie Cole at UCLA said, “It’s important for students to learn the full, complex truth about the United States.”
Some educators have already begun incorporating lessons about Juneteenth into their curriculum. There are ways that even the youngest students can begin to learn about the holiday and the complicated history it represents.
Jeanne Croteau at We Are Teachers and Hannah Yasharoff of USA Today recommend a number of books about Juneteenth. Some of their recommendations, paired with resources discovered through our own research, are provided below as resources teachers can incorporate into the classroom to help students learn about the holiday.
- “Juneteenth for Mazie” by Floyd Cooper is a picture book for young readers told from a contemporary child’s point of view.
- “All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom” by Angela Johnson tells the story of Juneteenth through the lens of a young girl alive in 1865.
- “Juneteenth (On My Own Holidays)” by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson & Drew Nelson is historical fiction appropriate for young learners detailing the events of the day.
- Sesame Street has a short, three-minute song called “Let’s Celebrate Juneteenth” that shares the story of Juneteenth and ideas for celebrating the holiday.
- For students who want to have “Juneteenth for Mazie” read out loud, there is a video available.
- There is also a fun, catchy Juneteenth Song for Kids video featuring a young group of singers called The Alphabet Rockers.
- “Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom” by Charles Taylor is an illustrated historical look at the day in 1865. It explains the meaning and the historical context of Juneteenth and gives examples of the celebrations from 1866 to today. Colorful illustrations, archival photographs, and historical documents all make the book accessible and compelling for readers in grades 6-8.
- “The Story of Juneteenth: An Interactive History Adventure” by Steven Otfinoski offers young readers multiple possible stories to choose from: Will you:
- Overcome obstacles as you make your way north from Texas, looking to begin a new life of freedom?
- Seek out your family, from whom you were separated as a child, after emancipation?
- Fight back when you take work as an apprentice but find that you’re still treated as a slave?
- “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson is a Newbery Honor Book and a collection of poetry about the writer’s experience growing up in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement.
- What is Juneteenth? Watch a Juneteenth Cartoon (Fun Facts about Juneteenth) combines a cartoon format with more information and history about the holiday and is appropriate for older learners.
- Juneteenth NYC High School Student Performance of Voices of a People’s History of the United States features students from The Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry, cofounded by Lincoln Center Education, reading the writings of those who suffered under slavery in America and fought for its abolition.
- 5 Facts about Juneteenth Day is another brief video, which uses historical photographs to teach about the holiday.
- “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America” by W. Caleb McDaniel is a Pulitzer Prize winning look at Henrietta Wood, a slave who was freed and then enslaved again, who ultimately escaped and won a lawsuit against her enslaver.
- “Island of Color: Where Juneteenth Started” by Izola Ethel Fedford Collins is an illustrated history of the author’s grandfather’s experience in Galveston, TX, as a child in 1865.
- “On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed is a combination of history and memoir that recounts African American history from the original Juneteenth to the present.
- What is Juneteenth? This video takes a look at some of the complicated and darker aspects of the history of the holiday and is appropriate for high school students.
- Juneteenth: Freedom and Last is another historical look at the origins of the holiday – namely the delays in actual emancipation – produced by the Minnesota Historical Society.
- The Best Foods to Celebrate Juneteenth With is an educational and fun way to look at the holiday.