Juneteenth marks an incredibly important moment in U.S. history that you probably never learned

Though many attribute the end of slavery to President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the truth is that not every slave — especially those who lived in the Confederacy — was made entirely free by the decree.

Numerous Confederate loyalists refused to obey Lincoln’s executive order and continued to hold out, even well after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army at Appomattox Court in Virginia in April 1865.

According to African American history scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., slaveowners who had previously lived in Mississippi, Louisiana and other states decided to escape the Union’s reach by moving to Texas. In choosing to do so, they moved nearly 150,000 slaves, many of whom were unaware of Lincoln’s order. A number of slave masters, who had been aware of the proclamation, purposely chose to delay the news in an effort to maintain control, while others — including the Confederate mayor of Galveston — defied Lincoln’s proclamation by forcing free slaves back to work.

As Gates notes, the few slaves who eventually learned of their freedom acted on it at their own risks. Many were reportedly shot during their attempt to cross the Sabine River, which runs through Texas and Louisiana. It wasn’t until June 19 — two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation — that General Gordon Granger, along with an army strong enough to combat the resistance, arrived to announce General Orders 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.” Thus, the last of America’s slaves —  all 250,000 of them in Texas — were finally free.

One year later, in 1866, the free Black men and women in the Lone Star State came together and, as Gates points out, “transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.” Since then, this celebration, which features gatherings, prayer services, reflection and more, has become known as Juneteenth — a holiday recognized by nearly all of the country’s 50 states and the oldest national celebration commemorating the end of slavery. It still has yet to be recognized as a federal holiday.

Why haven’t I learned about Juneteenth?

The reality is that American history, as it’s currently taught, is incredibly whitewashed and reaffirms the long presence of systemic racism in public education.

To put the concept of history whitewashing to the test, we asked a number of our colleagues how they learned about Juneteenth. Some admitted they learned from their families and peers, not in school.

Jamé Jackson: “My history classes never discussed Juneteenth or the fact that many people were still enslaved even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. These are the same history classes that never discussed central black figures unless it was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner and then later Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Dr. King. The most you’d learn about Black history was the section around the Harlem Renaissance, but even that omitted many important moments … It’s understandable why we wouldn’t have been taught about Juneteeth in school. So much of Black history has been glazed over and simplified to appeal to the masses, instead of addressing things as they really happened and what that suggests of America and culture. It’s why there are white saviors in film (look it up, it’s a real thing) and why certain facts are adjusted — people want to tell what happened … just not how it happened.”

Mya Bradley: “My middle school and high school education took place in predominantly white neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan. Almost all of my teachers were white. I was taught by my first Black teacher in a science class in middle school. The second Black teacher I had taught chemistry in high school. This is to say that I’m not surprised that Juneteenth was never taught to me during my elementary through high school years. I barely had educators that looked like me, and when slavery was taught, it was talked about as if it were thousands of years in the past, like the Civil War wasn’t recent and that we lived in a post-racial society.”

Those who did learn about Juneteenth in school either learned from a Black teacher, grew up in Black communities where the holiday was celebrated or had taken an elective — not a required class — on African American history.

Johanie Menendez: “I was 16 taking U.S. history during summer school at Crenshaw High School (which was my home school in L.A.), but I was bussed to a different school in a better neighborhood during my regular academic year. It was that summer that my Black and Native American teacher taught us about Juneteenth. I had never heard of it prior to that. She was the one that taught me that a lot was — and still is — missing from history books.”

Carla Morgan: “I first learned about Juneteenth as a child in grade school. As an adult, I took it upon myself to do more research about Juneteenth. In Chicago, I live in Bronzeville, which was known as the ‘Black Metropolis.’  There are a ton of programs to celebrate Juneteenth and educate residents. Throughout my younger years, I was surrounded by teachers that cared deeply about integrating important historical facts like Juneteenth into the curriculum, when the standard textbooks did not have that type of information.”

Christine Wallen: “In high school, we had the choice of picking elective courses. I decided to go with African American studies. Being the child of Black immigrants, I wanted to know about the history of Black America. My teacher was white and her name was Ms. White, but she made sure we knew every part of African American history we could possibly learn in a few months and was genuinely passionate about it. If it wasn’t for my taking this course, I wouldn’t know about Juneteenth. I am really grateful that I was part of a school system that gave me the option. However, now that I reflect, learning about Black history should be a part of regular history class or social studies.”

Dax Coley: “I learned about Juneteenth in my African American studies class during my sophomore year of high school. The year was 1994, but this wasn’t widely celebrated [even though] Black families knew about it. The second time I heard of Juneteenth was when it was acknowledged as a city holiday in the District of Columbia. I was dating an early childhood educator at that time. We had a discussion on the holiday and her lesson plan on the subject of Juneteenth.”

At least one person we spoke with confessed to not fully learning the importance of Juneteenth until recently.

Jennifer Kline: “It’s embarrassing to type the words, much less mean them, but the significance of Juneteenth is new to me. It’s one of the holidays that auto-populates on my Google Calendar, and year after year, I’ve glossed right past it. The truth is that I don’t know whether I was taught about it in school. If I was, it didn’t stick, and ultimately, that’s a failing on my end — whether back then as a teenager or today as an adult, I could have, should have, done my own research. Non-Jews usually know the basic details of my holidays, and they’re not even in English nor are they taught in schools. With the internet at my fingertips, I can’t squarely place my personal ignorance on a school curriculum. I wish I’d come to this realization earlier, but my hope is that it’s not too late to not only get up to speed, but to use this knowledge in a meaningful way.”

What the responses make clear is that Juneteenth doesn’t get the attention it deserves in most curricula. As many scholars and advocates have argued, African American history is American history — filtering American history to simply highlight white figures significantly hurts our understanding and appreciation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities.

“We shouldn’t wait for a designated month to teach our nation’s youth about the individuals who worked to build and move this country,” Adell Cothrone wrote in a 2018 piece for the Baltimore Sun. “We, as educators, parents and community members have an obligation to recognize powerful African American figures like mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in everyday conversations — because these aren’t strictly black heroes, they’re American heroes.”

Juneteenth comes during an especially difficult period for the Black community this year. What can I do to educate myself and be a better ally?

This year, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, along with the devastating and disproportionate effects of the current pandemic on Black and brown communities, have brought increased attention to police brutality and systemic racism that Black people have experienced over centuries. What isn’t stressed enough is that racial discrimination against the Black community is nothing new — each death and act of violence, from the beating of Rodney King to the death of Trayvon Martin, highlights the continued failures of American society to tackle anti-Blackness in all fields.

Now, more than ever, allyship is critical. And, according to Maya Richard-Craven, there are three points to keep in mind when attempting to be a better ally to Black people:

  • Understand your privilege. As Richard-Craven advises, white people need to acknowledge their privilege before engaging in any dialogue. “White privilege does not assume that white people have not worked hard to achieve their goals,” she wrote in a recent article for Elle. “White privilege acknowledges the ways in which white people do not have to consider their race in daily interactions. If you want to be a better ally, confronting your privilege is absolutely necessary before getting involved in the fight to make Black people feel seen and heard. “
  • Get involved instead of simply showing support on social media. Richard-Craven stresses that it is the responsibility of non-Black people to educate themselves on issues concerning the Black community. Taking part in a protest while specifically listening to people of color advocate for a more just society is one way to learn.
  • Listen to Black people. “For Black people, George Floyd’s death is yet another reminder of systemic racism in America,” Richard-Craven wrote. “Support your Black friends by asking them how they are doing. Distract them with a trip to their favorite store or park. Let them talk about their own interactions with law enforcement. Listen when they talk about the deaths of unarmed Black people. You’ll find that by having a short conversation you will probably make their day.”

We’ve also compiled a list of resources we’ve published that can help you get started. See below:

Explore our Resilience vertical for additional content, and, more importantly, continue to actively seek literature that will better inform you on the Black community.

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