Our Nation’s History: Celebrating Juneteenth, a U.S. National Holiday

By Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

This is the first full year that we get to celebrate Juneteenth as an official national holiday. As an African American I cannot help but have a sense of pride in how far things have progressed in the US. At the same time, I say that with caution because in many ways we have regressed as a nation. With the rise of hate groups, and attacks on school curriculum that offers diverse perspectives, it is ever more important that we celebrate Juneteenth, and find other ways to highlight our diverse national heritage. As such, we are posting an article we previously published in commemoration of Juneteenth. We have made new revisions, in light of President Biden’s recent legislation making it an official holiday.

Originally published June 24, 2020 (With new revisions from 2022).

Much of the social studies education we received in the United States has omitted significant information about the history and culture of people of color. Indeed the stories of Native Americans, Hispanics and African Americans have been strangely absent from American textbooks. Furthermore, cultural traditions and holidays valued by the black community have not been adequately explored in many public schools. One such holiday is Juneteenth. Most people have only just recently begun hearing about the holiday. With the slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery by the hand of law enforcement, Americans have begun delving more into the study of Black history. Due to the legacy of White Supremacy and racism, only ideas and concepts valued by European Americans have been privileged. This article will discuss this important African American holiday that has been pushed to the periphery for too long. In the last section we offer resources and lesson plans for teachers on the topic of Juneteenth.

Historical Background of Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. It is also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day. The holiday originated in Texas, but is now celebrated throughout the United States annually on June 19. Juneteenth was signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 17, 2021.

“For many years, activists and members of congress proposed legislation, advocated for, and built support for state and national observances. During his campaign for president in June 2020, Joe Biden publicly celebrated the holiday. President Donald Trump, during his campaign for reelection, added making the day a national holiday part of his “Platinum Plan for Black America”. Spurred on by the advocates and the Congressional Black Caucus, on June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday; it subsequently passed through the House of Representatives by a 415–14 vote on June 16. According to the bill, federal government employees will now get to take the day off every year on June 19, or should the date fall on a Saturday or Sunday, they will get the Monday or Friday closest to the Saturday or Sunday on which the date falls.”

Before Juneteenth was made an official holiday, most states legally recognized the holiday. By the 21st century, Juneteenth was celebrated in most major cities across the United States. Before President Biden’s legislation, Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota were the only states that did not recognize Juneteenth.

Juneteenth commemorates the day when Union army general Gordon Granger “announced federal orders in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, proclaiming that all slaves in Texas were free.” In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln had already passed the Emancipation Proclamation that officially outlawed slavery in states in rebellion against the Union. The challenge was that enforcement of the Proclamation generally relied on the advance of Union troops. Texas was the most remote southern state and therefore had a low amount of Union troops by the end of the Civil War. As a result, Texas received Granger’s announcement from troops well after the war had ended. “Black Texans learned of their freedom 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.” Juneteenth is commonly thought of as a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. However, the practice was still legal and practiced in the two Union border states of Delaware and Kentucky “until December 6, 1865, when ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished non-penal slavery nationwide.”

History of Junteenth Celebrations
Juneteenth celebrations date to 1866, and were originally church-centered community gatherings in Texas. “It spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920’s and 1930’s, often centering on a food festival. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, it was eclipsed by the struggle for postwar civil rights, but grew in popularity again in the 1970’s with a focus on African American freedom and arts. Modern Juneteenth celebrations are primarily local, often involving public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and black literature and singing traditional songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Celebrations also include “rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, and Miss Juneteenth contests. The Mascogos, descendants of Black Seminoles, who escaped from U.S. slavery in 1852 and settled in Coahuila, Mexico, also celebrate Juneteenth.”

Educators often struggle to find meaningful ways of integrating African American culture and history into their curriculum. Often African American history is merely an afterthought within the context of American history classrooms. The addition of the topic of Juneteenth can add rich materials to the classroom. We have included some educational resources below to help teachers approach the subject in a more meaningful way. 

Lesson Plans and Resources for Teachers
Teaching Juneteenth- Teaching Tolerance Resource
Celebrate Juneteenth Lesson Plan- Read, Write, Think
Juneteenth Lesson Plans
Juneteenth Freedom Day
Juneteenth History Lesson Plan
Celebrating Juneteenth
Juneteenth Lesson Plan- K-8
All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom- Curriculum Guide
Juneteenth Jamboree- Children’s Book
So You Want to Learn About Juneteenth?- New York Times
The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth- National Museum of African American History and Culture (Smithsonian)

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:

Dr. David Childs

1 Comment

  1. I am very glad that I was able to read this article and learn about the holiday of Junteenth as I had not really known much about it at all. I think that it is a step in the right direction that Junteenth is being recognized as a national holiday because it celebrates the freedom of all Americans, not just white Americans. As a white person, I have never had to question whether or not my country was proud to have me as a citizen, which is not something that everyone can say. The recognition of Juneteenth on a federal is one way that the government can acknowledge the struggles of African Americans historically and in the modern day; and while it does not solve every issue that exists in American race relations nor heal every past wound, it is a step towards recognition that those issues work and the need for action.

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