All Americans are very familiar with Independence Day and the types of celebrations that accompany July 4th. We celebrate with barbecues and fireworks. We gather together with friends and family to celebrate the freedom of our nation. But although our nation gained its freedom on that day, not all Americans, at that time, were free. It would be many years before enslaved African-Americans would be able to celebrate their freedom in the same way. So real freedom for all Americans didn’t come until June 19, 1865, a day that came to be known as Juneteenth.

What is Juneteenth?

On the eve of January 1, 1863, enslaved African-Americans waited anxiously for word that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. Prayers were answered at the stroke of midnight when enslaved people in the Confederate states were declared free. While this was cause for great celebration, not all enslaved African Americans felt like celebrating. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been enacted, it could not be implemented in places that were still under Confederate control. For enslaved people in Texas, it would be much later before they experienced the same freedom. But on June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston declaring that all enslaved people were free by executive decree. This day, known as Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day, was celebrated as early as the following year. On June 19, 1866, freed slaves in Texas celebrated their first year of freedom with special church services and other spiritual activities. They even wore new clothes as a symbol of their newfound freedom. As years passed, celebrations of Juneteenth spread throughout the United States. Celebrations of Juneteenth continue today. It is important that we recognize and celebrate this day in our classrooms because of the impact it has had on so many. It is also very important that, while we celebrate freedom from Great Britain and our nation’s independence on July 4th, we must also acknowledge that not all Americans were free until much later on.

Why is it Important for Students to Recognize Juneteenth?

There’s a line in the musical, Hamilton, while Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, and John Laurens were stoking the flames of revolution, that says, “But we’ll never be truly free, until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me”. This is the epitome of why this day is so important to be acknowledged. While of course, we acknowledge and celebrate July 4th, we must also make it known to our students that freedom was not for all at that time. Freedom for many came much later. This helps students understand the struggles that some Americans experienced as a result of inequality and inhumane treatment. There are many students that are not familiar with Juneteenth or the reason for it. In learning about this day, students begin to understand the deep disparity that exists between concepts of freedom in our country. Students learn to be compassionate towards others in realizing that not all perspectives are the same. This holiday represents freedom and equality to so many people, whereas July 4th may only cause pain as some remember ancestors that would not have experienced freedom until June 19, 1865.

How to Recognize Juneteenth in Your Class

There are many different ways that Juneteenth can be recognized in your classroom. Some students will still be in school and some will be out for the summer. Either way, set aside a day, either June 19 or another date before school gets out for the summer, to celebrate and learn about this important day.

Read/study the Emancipation Proclamation – This is a great opportunity to study a primary source, while at the same time, studying the reasons behind Juneteenth. A transcript of the proclamation can easily be found online. Make copies and distribute to students. Students can then read and evaluate what is said in this document. Perhaps divide it into sections, assigning a different group of students to each section. Have them read and evaluate/analyze every statement within their assigned section. While the language is very formal in this document, students should still be able to analyze it with prompting and support. Have each group share with the class what their section of the Emancipation Proclamation says.

Slavery in Texas – After reviewing the Emancipation Proclamation and analyzing what it means, this would be a great time to look into how slavery was different in Texas. Why didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation apply to Texas? Why wasn’t it implemented? What finally happened that allowed slaves in Texas to gain freedom? This topic lends itself to in-depth study and discussion of the laws and regulations that created this special situation.

The Underground Railroad – This would also be an excellent time to study the Underground Railroad to learn about heroes that risked their lives in order to free slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted. This could lead to a debate regarding following laws vs. doing what is right. How would this apply to today? What are some areas where the law calls upon us as citizens to do what we feel is morally wrong? How should we handle those situations? Another activity would be to have students map routes of the Underground Railroad by researching locations of stops.

An African Celebration – Do some research regarding what kind of celebration may have happened for Juneteenth back in 1865. Then, implement these activities on the day you have designated to celebrate Juneteenth. You can play some old spirituals that slaves would have sung. You can study the lyrics of these spirituals to decipher deeper meaning. Many of these spirituals contained code language which they used to send messages to one another regarding the Underground Railroad. Give students copies of the lyrics and allow them to analyze these in groups. You can also research what kind of foods slaves would prepare and serve some of those foods. Also, there are many pieces of literature and poetry that can be read in order to recognize the characteristics of African American literature and poetry.

By implementing these activities, the freedom of all Americans can be emphasized and celebrated rather than the freedom of just a few.