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Teaching Hard Histories Through Juneteenth

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article, Juneteenth was declared a federal national holiday in 2021.

Each year around June 19, Black communities across the country unite for a family reunion of sorts. Juneteenth activities feature the sights and sounds of Blackness: People enjoying art, music and food that connect them to a shared ancestry and history. They celebrate being their authentic selves. They celebrate freedom in both solemn and festive ceremonies.  

This celebration marks a day in 1865 when enslaved Texans learned they’d be free—two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered and ended the Civil War and two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Initially a uniquely Texan observance, Juneteenth has now been recognized in some form in every corner of the country.

There are many ways to teach students about this celebration. Lessons about Juneteenth need to recognize the challenges those who fight injustice have always faced, but they shouldn’t be marked only by the tragedy of enslavement. Students, particularly Black students, can find empowerment in the jubilant celebrations of culture, activism and the humanity of a people.

Although the truth had been hidden from them—and they continued to face threats of continued oppression, violence and death—a year after they learned of their freedom, formerly enslaved people resiliently rallied around that date and made the celebration an annual ritual. Early Juneteenth observances included a search for lost family members and an opportunity to uplift each other as they moved through hostile environments. 

With this knowledge, students can also identify ways the descendants of the enslaved recapture and honor the cultures, customs and practices lost through slavery. 

Early celebrations involved readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious ceremonies, singing, games and enjoying foods that enslaved people ate. Today, it doesn’t look that much different. People retell histories, have family reunions, eat foods reminiscent of early Juneteenth celebrations such as barbeque, attend religious services or choir performances and have elaborate displays such as fancy dress and parades. 

That’s why Juneteenth is more than an observance of freedom. It’s also a time to share the experiences of those who fought—literally and figuratively—to seek true freedom for future generations. It’s important that we don’t whitewash this history. 

A common mistake among those who teach the history of American slavery is to center the U.S. government’s role in granting freedom while also placing the onus to navigate through a racist society solely on the formerly enslaved.

Perhaps many center Lincoln in this history because we tend to think of the Emancipation Proclamation, instead of the 13th Amendment, as ending slavery. Our 2018 Teaching Hard History report found that 59 percent of high school students couldn’t correctly identify the latter as the legal end to slavery in the United States. 

But it’s important for students to know that enslaved people didn’t willfully accept enslavement or wait for others to free them. They resisted often and consistently. While rare, violent rebellions did occur. Some people successfully escaped enslavement. And everyday acts of resistance, such as breaking tools or pretending to be ill were other ways enslaved people asserted their humanity. 

Read entire article at SPLC Learning for Justice