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).

Introduction
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
childsd1@nku.edu 

5 Comments

  1. I am sad I didn’t learn about Juneteenth in more detail in middle and high school. It was something that was skimmed over. I am happy that President Biden made Juneteenth an official holiday! I am, however, sad that it took so long to do so since Texas has had Juneteenth as a holiday of significance since the late 1970s. I hope that with Juneteenth now being a national holiday, more information about it and other cultures throughout the United States will come forward and be celebrated.

  2. Our Nation’s History: Celebrating Juneteenth, a U.S. National Holiday
    I have to admit that I just learned about Juneteenth Celebrations a few weeks ago and agree that it will add more information and materials into classrooms which is very necessary. The announcement of federal orders in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, proclaiming that all slaves in Texas were free is such an important historical event and should have been a national holiday for a long time. I do hope that this holiday will be celebrated in a larger scale because I feel that it was not done justice this year.

  3. I am ashamed that I am 44 years old and had never heard of this until recently. I had no knowledge go Juneteenth or the meaning behind it. I also went to predominately white school, so I am assuming that is why. I am excited that this has become a federal holiday. This is a huge part of history and should be taught in school. The day that slaves were freed in my opinion needs to be known and recognized. As part of the history of America this date should be honored and people should gather to show their support for this holiday.

  4. As a Cameroonian, from Africa, we studied, Cameroon History, African History and World History (White History surrounding the French and Italian Revolutions to the Crimean War and First and Second World War) – and all this was done before we got to high school. One thing that amazed me is how ignorant most Americans are about the history that surrounds peoples of Color and it is sad to see. I may be wrong but Black History in the US is a huge issue that has had bearing on Politics, the Economy and even Social challenges as well.
    Juneteeth may seem to be the celebration of victory of a battle or only a milestone in the fight for a level playing field between White people and peoples of Color.

  5. It wasn’t until I took my US History class in college that I was taught about ‘non-white’ history and the profound effects that it had on our culture. It amazed me after learning about it that I was never taught about black cowboys or the importance of Native Americans within our history. I did my final project on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. So, celebrating Juneteenth only seems fitting- that we raise up and celebrate what was fought so hard by so many blacks during the Civil War. We celebrate because on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War ended FINALLY hundreds of thousands of enslaved men and women in Texas finally learned they had been freed.

    Thank you for sharing.

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