Editor’s note: This page was updated at 1:44 p.m. on June 17, 2021, to indicate that President Biden signed the law designating June 19 as the Juneteenth national holiday.
On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The reality though was that the Emancipation did not end slavery. Freedom for many would be won state by state in battles across the remnants of the Confederacy, with the help of nearly 200,000 Black soldiers who joined in the Union effort after Lincoln’s proclamation.
Even as enslaved Black people in some Confederate states at midnight on December 31, 1862, watched and waited for their freedom, many others did not know they were free. And as the war waged on thousands of confederates fled to the frontier state of Texas, taking thousands of enslaved Black people with them. It would be two-and-a-half years, more than two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, that 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas would learn of their freedom.
In Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Reactions ranged from shocked amazement to outbreaks of spontaneous celebration. The day would come to be known and recognized as “Juneteenth.”
Unfortunately, too few of us know this history. And our ignorance is connected to the very real erasure that results from the institutional racism woven into this country’s history.
“Let us be clear, Juneteenth has been taught in some American classrooms and there have long been individual teachers who offer a complex, carefully considered nuanced history of Juneteenth and slavery,” said Eddie Cole, an associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies. “But they often do so without relying on school textbooks. They may explore historical texts from a century ago, or other primary sources. Those teachers provide their students with a more holistic truth and a glimpse at Black liberation and triumph.
“That said, Juneteenth is not taught in most American classrooms because it is not a feel-good story,” Cole said. “It is an exemplifier of the truth. It is a stunning example of how racism and capitalism have stained the idea of an American democracy. It does not fit the mainstream narrative that centers the nation’s independence. Instead, it highlights the misdeeds, or at least the negligence, of many so-called national heroes. That alone is why it is not taught in many schools.”
Celebrations of Juneteenth date back to 1866. Gathering at churches, festivals, barbeques and other events large and small, formerly enslaved Black people would come together to pray, meet with family and honor the day. The events spread from Texas across the South, and into northern states as Black people moved across the nation, taking their stories with them.
Recognition of the event declined in the early 1900s as memories of the Civil War faded and families of former enslaved Black people migrated north. Still, Juneteenth continued to be celebrated, with the Texas state fair and other events drawing tens of thousands during the 1940s and early 1950s.
Texas officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980, becoming the first state in the nation to do so. Today, Juneteenth is officially recognized by 47 states. Today, President Joe Biden signed a law designating Juneteenth a national holiday to be observed every June 19.
The problem is prevalent
A 2016 survey conducted by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture estimated that less than 10% of total class time is devoted to teaching Black history. And according a 2017 Southern Poverty Law Center survey of the 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards, textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery.
Additionally, a 2020 investigation by CBS News examining how Black history is taught across the United States found seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and eight states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only two states specifically mention white supremacy, while curriculum in 16 states list “states’ rights” as a cause of the Civil War.
Cole underscores that textbooks have long been politicized because the truth about slavery was a political, as well as a racial, social, moral and economic issue.
“As long as public school system budgets have been tied to elected officials, there has been significant state interference with incorporating Juneteenth, and slavery for that matter, into school textbooks,” Cole said. “This has perhaps been the easiest way to ensure that generations prioritize the narrative that centers national triumph over the more truthful narrative of national wrongdoings and missteps alongside triumph.”
The teaching of Black History and slavery is currently under attack by some political leaders. According to Education Week, as of June 14 of this year, 21 states, including Texas, where Juneteenth originated, are considering measures restricting how teachers can discuss racism, slavery or the teaching of critical race theory. Florida and other states have moved to ban the use of the New York Times 1619 Project, which explores the role of slavery in the history of the United States, from being used in school classrooms.
Despite the efforts of some, there is also renewed public support for teaching about Black History and racism through the exploration of Juneteenth and other experiences and events. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others resulted in the protests across the nation and sparked a renewed interest in civil rights, freedom and Black history in the United States. And this year, the Juneteenth Foundation hosts the Juneteenth Freedom Festival and is asking corporations and others to celebrate Juneteenth as a national “Day of advocacy and involvement,” and to support social justice, civil rights and education organizations.
“We would all be better served if we acknowledged that our challenges today are not something unique to our current experience,” Cole said. “We would better understand how to navigate the moment by studying how those before us have resisted and taught in spite of the effort to limit these discussions in classrooms. Because to fundamentally mislead the youth after Juneteenth or other racialized moments in history is to do them a grave disservice on their road to becoming, hopefully, fully engaged citizens of the world who understand the legacies of the past and how it shapes our present.
“Juneteenth is an important reminder that freedom has not always been actualized simply because laws have been passed in the United States,” Cole said. “Juneteenth is a reminder of promises made and promises broken, and it’s important for students to learn the full, complex truth about the United States as ‘the land of the free.’”