How to teach kids about Juneteenth

Juneteenth flag
Juneteenth flag. Photo credit Getty Images
By , Audacy

Black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth for more than 150 years, but textbooks and school curriculum have often ignored what is soon to become the 12th national holiday in the U.S.

Taija Sparkman, a Chicago-area mother who began homeschooling her three daughters during the COVID-19 pandemic, recently gave Audacy some tips about how to teach children about Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth is different from other holidays because it’s been an annual celebration since the beginning, whether the government – state or federal – chose to acknowledge it as such,” Sparkman explained. “It was birthed out of the sheer joy of all Black people finally attaining something that for hundreds of years was out of grasp for so many.”

Although Juneteenth is a joyous celebration, it comes out of a painful period of our nation’s history.

On June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger brought around 2,000 Union troops to Galveston Bay and announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas were free by executive decree, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Juneteenth is an important reminder of both America's tragically unjust history and its capacity to change,” said Gloria Smith, executive director of the Black Star Project,  a non-profit organization focused on eliminating the racial academic achievement gap, along with program manager Justin Douglas. “Juneteenth requires us to acknowledge the centuries of oppressive violence experienced by African Americans, whose slave labor (and later legal subjugation and exploitation) is at the root of the great wealth of American society,” they said.

To teach kids about the history of the holiday, Sparkman recommends not glossing over the uncomfortable parts of the Juneteenth story, including President Lincoln’s complicated relationship with slavery.

“I think the most important lesson we can learn from Juneteenth is the truth about slavery and our country’s history,” said Sparkman. “What does it mean that for 2.5 years after slavery ended, there were 250,000 slaves that didn’t know they were free? They continued to be enslaved and work for free. We can’t make the country a better place for future generations if we’re unwilling to learn all of our past – the good, bad, and muddy.”

Traditionally, Black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth with a barbeque, embracing Black culture, said Sparkman. For those who were not taught about the holiday, she said it is a good opportunity to celebrate by learning rather than throwing a party.

“Learn about influential Black people other than Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Rosa Parks. Research the history of Black neighborhoods, such as Greenwood District in Tulsa and Rosewood in Florida, and what happened to them,” she suggested. “Donate to an organization that is making a difference in Black communities. Support a Black-owned business. Learn about Black culture – our music, art, movies. If there are events or parades happening in your town, go to them. Learn from them.”

If parents and educators really want children to understand Juneteenth, they should work to learn about Black history all year, Sparkman added.

“We can celebrate Juneteenth by being vocal advocates and allies with the Black community year-round,” said Smith and Douglas.

For her classroom at home, Sparkman also developed “Juneteenth Camp” which includes five days of learning about the holiday using prompts from The Melanin Village homeschooling community. She supplements the prompts with books and YouTube videos.

By the end of the camp, her daughters will give a presentation.

“It’s great that Juneteenth is getting a lot of attention right now. It’s important to really take the time to appreciate the history and not whitewash it or change it,” Sparkman said. “Talking about slavery is uncomfortable, but it’s also a part of the fabric of this country. 400 years later and its impact can still be felt. We need to sit in that uncomfortableness and allow the hard conversations to be had. Our kids are smart and strong, and they can handle the truth.”

Congress passed a bill making Juneteenth, June 19, the 12th federal holiday on Wednesday. President Joe Biden is soon expected to sign it into law.

Making Juneteenth a national holiday won’t be a panacea for the county’s racial inequities, but Smith and Douglas think “the benefits will be immense.”

“Bringing Juneteenth to the forefront of our national consciousness each year will be yet another opportunity for us to collectively look at ourselves as a society and assess where we are, where we've come from, and where we need to go,” they said.

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