Juneteenth: 4 Questions Answered

Juneteenth became a huge topic of conversation in 2020. Now, it’s a recognized holiday. You might know all about Juneteenth by now, but I don’t like to make assumptions. Here’s some helpful information about Juneteenth to help you understand why June 19th is a holiday.

First, let’s define what Juneteenth is. I’m not going to get too deep into the explanation because you can Google it. It’s pretty straightforward.

What is Juneteenth?

According to juneteenth.com, Juneteenth “is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.”

The site explains that the enslaved people in Galveston didn’t know that they had been free for two years. Because of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Here’s where this gets sticky. Let’s set something straight. The Emancipation Proclamation DIDN”T end slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation freed people in the rebellious states. Enslaved people living in states that remained loyal to the Union were not freed. Yup, that’s right. There were slaveholding states that fought for the Union. Also, do you think the slaveholders in the Confederacy would have listened to Lincoln? Nope. They created their own country and had their own President. Why would they listen to him? It was the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that finally ended slavery in the U.S.

Ok, now that that’s cleared up. Let’s address some questions that people have about Juneteenth.

Question #1: Why wasn’t I taught this in school?

If I hear one more person ask, “Why wasn’t I taught this in school?” my head’s going to explode. I’m kidding. Sort of. In this instance, I am in the same boat. Here are some of my thoughts on this:

Curriculum Problems & State Testing

  • Many high school curricula start post-Reconstruction. So it’s not in the curriculum. There’s very little time to add things that are outside of the curriculum. I worked in a district where U.S. History was one year long. It started with the colonies and ended with a state test students had to pass to graduate. This led to a lot of notetaking and gotta get through the material teaching.
  • There’s so much to teach. Plus, certain topics are taught repeatedly, leaving little room for anything else.
  • State testing dictates what we teach. I’ve worked in two states where U.S. History ends with a state test. State testing takes the social out of social studies. We must decide what we want history class to be as a society. Do we want it to be fact-vomiting to pass a state test or a place to learn skills that will improve our country? A lot of people don’t understand that as social studies teachers, we don’t just teach history. We teach reading, writing, argumentation, empathy, etc. It’s a lot. But that’s what’s needed to change society. Who cares what date blah blah blah event ended? We also need to be asking the how and the why more often.

Lack of Knowledge

  • Also, teachers, more often than not, teach what they know. And we know the white narrative of history. That’s what we’ve all been taught. You can’t teach what you don’t know. Simple as that.

Institutionalized Racism

  • The most important and least clear reason is racism. Oh no. Here I go again, saying stuff is racist. Well, the education system is. We are taught that the only contributions that matter are those of white men. Think I’m wrong? I encourage you to think about who and what you learned about in school. What names do you remember? What events were you taught about? I bet you come up with more white men than women or people of color. The article From Juneteenth to the Tusla Massacre: What isn’t taught in classrooms has a profound impact and is eye-opening. In the article, historian and associate professor at the Univerity of Richmond Julian Hayter states,
    • “The curriculum was never designed to be anything other than white supremacist,…and it has been very difficult to convince people that other versions of history are not only worth telling. They’re absolutely essential for us as a country to move closer to something that might reflect reconciliation, but even more importantly, the truth.”
  • As teachers, we are always trying to figure out how to be more inclusive in what we teach. It’s hard. When your scope & sequence says to spend a month on WWII, it’s hard. It’s redundant, especially because students learned about it in their World History class. I’m not saying that we should never repeat topics. I’m saying we need to reconsider what we’re teaching. What can we add? What can we subtract? Education is designed to teach a single narrative. Anything outside of that perspective becomes extra. Making it easy to push to the side. 

Question #2: Do people actually celebrate Juneteenth?

I was recently chatting with a couple of Black people. (I know that sounds awkward, but I told them I wouldn’t name them in this post).  One asked, “Do people actually celebrate Juneteenth?” The other person responded, “Now we do.” I found that interesting. We’ve ignored this history and tradition for so long that even many Black people have never heard of it. But the answer is yes, and people celebrate Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day. (Jubilee, what a cute name, now if only I can convince my husband to let me name a future child that, but I digress).

  • Celebrations were widespread until the early 1900s.
  • There was a resurgence of Juneteenth celebrations during the Civil Rights Movement. (For obvious reasons).
  • Texas made June 19th a state holiday in 1980.
  • Today, 47 states and Washington, D.C., acknowledge or observe the holiday. (Forbes)
  • There are parades and other celebrations in cities throughout the U.S. every year.

So, yes. People celebrate Juneteenth. I’m happy that it looks like there will be more acknowledgment and celebration in the future.

Also, in case you thought that everyone supports Juneteenth. I mean, why would anyone be against celebrating the end of slavery? Cue the racists. There have been posts on Instagram threatening Black people not to post 4th of July activities. You might be asking yourself, “Why would anyone say that?” Well, their reason is because that’s the “white holiday.” They claim Juneteenth as the Black American holiday.

Question #3: Why is celebrating Juneteenth important?

  • Here’s a great 2018 article from Vox about why celebrating Juneteenth is important. In the article, Professor Karlos Hill explains why. He does a much better job of explaining the importance of it than I can, so I will leave you with his quotes. Hill states:
    • “It wouldn’t be a Juneteenth holiday so much that would bring about this change; it would be the dialogue — creating the consensus around the holiday, the actions taken after this holiday has been approved at the national level — that would really be where change begins. A Juneteenth holiday is just the impetus and enabler of the change that we want to see. The process of creating this holiday, the change that would need to occur to get people’s minds and spirits in the right place, is really what we want.”
    • “I think Juneteenth is a necessary moment of observation because our government and, to a certain degree, our nation and our culture have not really acknowledged the trauma of 4 million enslaved people and their descendants. It hasn’t acknowledged the impact this institution has had on this country and continues to have on this country. There hasn’t been a national accounting, and I think the Juneteenth holiday is kind of a reminder of that. And it will continue to be a reminder and a haunting until we do. It’s necessary, but it isn’t sufficient in terms of what we need to do when it comes to acknowledging this history.”

Question #4: What are the ways teachers can teach about Juneteenth?

As I said before, I’ve never taught about Juneteenth. So, I did some research and found some great ideas from one of my favorite sites, Teaching Tolerance. Check out their lesson Teaching Tolerance: Teaching Juneteenth. They have great recommendations for how you can frame your lessons. Click the link above for more information. Here’s what they suggest in a nutshell: Teaching Juneteenth: Culture as Resistance, Teaching Juneteenth: Understanding Emancipation, Teaching Juneteenth: Backlash to Freedom, and/or Teaching Juneteenth: American Ideals

Want more info? Here are the resources I used for this post:

Want to read more from the Teach Hungry Movement? Check me out here

It’s your turn! Did you know anything about Juneteenth before that last few weeks? Let me know in the comment section below!

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