This unit provides a wide-ranging overview of racial slavery in the Americas and the opportunity for students to consider how the past shapes the present.
On June 19, 1865–more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation–Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with 1,800 Union troops. Among other orders, he issued General Order No. 3, which reads as follows: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a law establishing June 19, known as Juneteenth, as a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. While the observation of Juneteenth has come to the attention of many Americans in recent years, celebrations have been happening in Texas since 1866 and spread throughout the country since then. This lesson introduces students to the history of Juneteenth and its symbolism, ritual, and meaning. The lesson is part of the Choices Program’s curriculum unit Racial Slavery in the Americas: Resistance, Freedom, and Legacies.
- Learn about the history of the holiday of Juneteenth in the United States.
- Analyze text sources that reveal important symbolism and rituals in Juneteenth commemorations.
- Examine text sources that reflect upon the significance of Juneteenth as an American holiday.
- Research local celebrations of Juneteenth.
Though this lesson can be completed as a stand-alone activity, students will have a richer learning experience if they have used/read the Racial Slavery in the Americas unit, available in digital format from the Choices Program for free through June 2022.
- Juneteenth Sources
- Analyzing the Sources
- Juneteenth Fact Sheet for Teachers
- Video: The Washington Post: The history behind Juneteenth and why it resonates today
- Video: Voice of America: Juneteenth—A Day to Reflect on the History and Legacy of Slavery in the United States
In the Classroom
1. Introduce the Lesson
Ask students if they have heard of the holiday called Juneteenth. If yes, ask students what they know about it. Using the Juneteenth Fact Sheet for Teachers, introduce the history of Juneteenth. You may also wish to show one of the videos (The Washington Post or Voice of America) that provide an introduction to Juneteenth.
Tell students they will be examining contemporary sources from African Americans that reveal important symbolism in Juneteenth commemorations and reflect upon the significance of Juneteenth as a holiday. Review with students key concepts such as commemoration and symbolism.
2. Work in Pairs
Divide the class into pairs and distribute Juneteenth Sources and Analyzing the Sources to each student. Student pairs should work through and discuss the questions pertaining to each set of sources. Have one member of each pair record the responses on the worksheet.
3. Class Discussion
Lead the class in a discussion about their findings. You may want to focus on certain quotations to emphasize important elements of symbolism in Juneteenth celebrations and various interpretations of the meaning or significance of the holiday for African Americans.
After the class has discussed their findings, pose the following questions for discussion. Which quote stood out to them as particularly significant and why? If most students had not heard of this holiday before this lesson, why do they think that is? For students who had heard about Juneteenth before, what did they learn that was new or surprising? What is significant about calling Juneteenth the “Black 4th of July” or “African American 4th of July”?
Now that the federal government made Juneteenth a national holiday (like the 4th of July), what message do you think that sends to people in the United States? Based on everything they have learned about the history of racial slavery in the Americas, what do they think is important to commemorate on Juneteenth and why?
4. Research Local Juneteenth Celebrations
(Note: If you teach outside of the United States, you may want to adapt Extra Challenge #2 for a concluding aspect of this lesson).
Tell students that they will be examining Juneteenth celebrations in their community, region, and/or state. This part of the lesson requires the ability to conduct internet research in the classroom (if this is not possible, this part of the lesson could be assigned as homework). Write the following instructions on the board and direct students to work in their pairs to research local, regional, and/or state Juneteenth celebrations.
– Find out when and where Juneteenth celebrations are held near your community. (If there are no local celebrations, direct students to search for the celebrations closest to their communities or search for celebrations in nearby major cities.)
– Find out what types of events, activities, and commemorations take place during these Juneteenth celebrations.
– Find images or video clips of Juneteenth celebrations from your community or nearby areas.
You may want to direct students to specific websites, such as local newspapers, local TV news, and other sites that cover community events in your region.
You also may want to review with students key tips for conducting research using internet search engines: such as putting quotation marks around key terms, limiting searches by date, and site-specific searches (e.g., site:nytimes.com on Google). Have students present their findings. If any students found particularly revealing quotes, images, or videos, you may want to show them and discuss as a class.
1. Oral History
If students expressed familiarity with the Juneteenth holiday, or if Juneteenth celebrations are common in your community, instruct students to conduct an interview with someone they know who has participated in Juneteenth commemorations. Have students ask the interviewee what they know about the history of the holiday, what they know about the symbolism or rituals of the holiday, and what the holiday means to them. You may want to instruct students to record their interviews with their phones. Have students present their findings from their interviews to the class. If familiar with video editing, you may have students work in groups to create edited videos that highlight important parts from their interviews.
2. Research and Report on Other Emancipation Days
Emancipation Day in Caribbean nations predates the Juneteenth holiday, as the first celebrations were held in 1838 upon the abolition of slavery in British colonies. Assign students in groups (or individually) to research both the origins of Emancipation Day in Caribbean nations and how the holiday is celebrated today. You may want to assign different countries to each group/student. Instruct students to identify at least two examples of (1) symbolism or rituals in Emancipation Day commemorations; and (2) participants commenting on the meaning or significance of Emancipation Day for their communities. If assigned individually, have students write a short essay that introduces the history of Emancipation Day and analyzes the symbolism and meaning of the holiday. If assigned to groups, have each group present their findings to the class.
Image: Texas African American History Memorial on the Texas State Capitol grounds in Austin. The central portion of the memorial depicts Juneteenth in Texas (June 19, 1865). Photo by cmh2315fl on flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).