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Connecting Past and Present to Help Students Understand Juneteenth

Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans learned of their freedom in Galveston, Texas, 901 days after the Emancipation Proclamation. This was one of the very last groups of enslaved people to hear of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed in 1863 and outlawed slavery in the Confederate states. Due to slaveholders purposely withholding the information, compounded by a lack of Union troops in the state of Texas, it took two and a half years before the order was communicated and enforced.

Celebrations of freedom like parades, church services, and family gatherings started in Texas after the Civil War and spread around the country as Black Americans migrated out of the South. 

As a global educator, you can help your students make relevant and timely connections to the past and present as you learn about the Juneteenth holiday together.

Use primary sources to learn about historical perspectives

Each July 4, the United States celebrates its independence from Great Britain. But freedom was not enjoyed by all people, as slavery still existed in the United States for almost 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was ratified in 1776

Juneteenth is a celebration of independence for African Americans, who endured centuries of enslavement. Students in upper grades can examine Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” as a primary source for the perspective of a former enslaved person and abolitionist fighting for freedom for all people. 

Ask students to note the year in which Douglass gave this speech, and the context. Students can examine the text, look up words they don’t know, and answer the questions posed at the end of the speech. Have a respectful discussion and help students build empathy by asking them why these holidays may mean different things to different people.  

Juneteenth is also about honoring the sacrifices that were made by Black Americans in their quest for freedom. You can ask students to examine primary sources related to Black soldiers serving during the Civil War. You can also learn about Black abolitionists and their role in ending slavery. 

Connect Juneteenth to current events

Juneteenth is honored by communities and individuals around the United States in unique ways. Learn about them with your students and ask them to reflect on how these celebrations represent historical values and traditions within Black communities. 

Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 after legislation was passed. Ask your students to read this article for a bit of background information on how federal holidays are established. Ask them about how the public’s push for recognizing this holiday and shifting cultural values played a part in the Juneteenth legislation. You can connect this to issues of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dive deeper with additional resources

There are many classroom resources you can use with your students to continue learning about Juneteenth together. Thoughtfully engaging with history and connecting it to the present will help students become more engaged citizens. Browse these resources for further ideas:

We’d love to hear your ideas and how you honor Juneteenth with your students! Share with us on social media using #UnitingOurWorld.

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