How parents can celebrate Juneteenth with their kids

As the school year winds down and the first day of summer approaches, families across the country are making plans to celebrate freedom — and no, we’re not talking about July 4. 

Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19, honors the day in 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to share the news that enslaved African Americans were finally free and that the Civil War was officially over. While this was welcome news, it was also late — coming more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to enslaved people in the Confederate states.

“Juneteenth gives families and communities an opportunity to pass on the history of the struggle of what was experienced by the enslaved when they became freed and the continued obstacles and challenges that they faced,” says Kelly E. Navies, oral historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. “So it’s an opportunity to address all of that and also look toward the future.”

For more than 150 years, African American families have marked Juneteenth as the official day of freedom. But what many families might not know is that Juneteenth is a holiday for all Americans, and its celebration is not only welcome but also necessary.

“Juneteenth is important for parents to celebrate with their kids because America still struggles with acknowledging the history of African Americans,” Rev. Robert Turner, pastor at the historic Vernon A.M.E. Church in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma tells In The Know.

Parents should encourage their kids to celebrate, the father of two adds, “because it was the day when all Americans began to be free.”

With Juneteenth steadily gaining more attention, and the Senate this week passing legislation to make the date a national holiday, here’s how families can honor the holiday and celebrate with kids in a meaningful way.

1. Join a Juneteenth celebration in your town

Credit: REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

“Ideally you are supposed to celebrate Juneteenth in some type of community environment — family, community or church,” Navies says, adding that the pandemic has made that challenging this year.

For the historian and mom of one, celebrating Juneteenth while participating in cultural arts has been key — especially for kids.

“We have an open mic that we do, and we usually have children lead that as the emcees,” Navies says. “My daughter, for example, sings, and she started singing every year at the age of 8. Then people started looking forward to that every year, but she would always sing a song that represented African American history and culture. So her first song was a Nina Simone song, believe it or not, at the age of 8. It was Marvin Gaye one year — just the different songs that represent the culture.”

Juneteenth celebrations can also include traditional drum performances and dancing.

“Sometimes it’s just impromptu,” Navies adds. “Kids will just get up and just dance.”

2. Read poetry or books celebrating African American culture

Credit: Getty Images

In addition to reading kid-friendly books about Juneteenth itself, families and communities can host poetry or literature readings of work that spotlights African American writers.

“[Kids] can share original poetry, they can look to the canon of African American literature and read poetry like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou,” Navies says.

“My parents did that for me, so it’s a way of nurturing talent,” she adds. “I did poetry. I didn’t sing — that wasn’t my thing.”

3. Get crafty with Juneteenth-themed art

Credit: Getty Images

Celebrating the holiday is all about bringing your own talents to the festivities. If kids are more into crafts than song and dance, why not encourage them to get hands-on and creative?

“You can work with your children to draw pictures. You can do collages that can be shared with the community, different artistic renderings, different flags, maybe the Juneteenth flag or the pan-African flag,” Navies suggests.

4. Visit a museum — either in-person or online

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture (Credit: Alan Karchmer)

While many museums, including the National Museum of African American Heritage & Culture (NMAAHC), have begun phased re-openings with limited capacity, they still offer virtual access to many exhibits online.

In fact, virtual visitors can check out NMAAHC’s Juneteenth programming, which includes recorded works from musicians, storytellers, and historians. There are also recipes and readings.

For a deeper dive into the history of slavery and emancipation, Navies recommends exploring the museum’s slavery and freedom gallery, which has artifacts including the remains of a slave ship, Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s bible and copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.

5. Read the oral histories of slavery and segregation survivors

Credit: Getty Images

For older kids, reading first-hand accounts of slavery can be eye-opening and offer insights beyond the textbook.

The Library of Congress offers a digital collection of these accounts from Born Into Slavery: Slave Narratives From the Federal Writers’ Project, a compilation of more than 2,300 narratives collected during the 1930s for the Works Progress Administration.

The NMAAHC also offers interviews with people who spoke out during the Civil Rights Movement as well as survivors of the segregationist Jim Crow laws.

‘America is still growing’

In a tumultuous year that saw the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, Navies is heartened by the increased interest in Juneteenth and more.

“There’s definitely, since last year, been an increased interest in not just Juneteenth but in people wanting to educate themselves more and educate their children more about the history of America with regard to African Americans and race in general,” Navies tells In The Know.

And with so many opportunities for learning, parents and kids can create a meaningful annual tradition that can help expand their view of American history.

“I hope kids learn that America is still growing; it is one of the youngest nations on Earth,” says Rev. Turner. “It is up to each generation to make us that ‘more perfect union.’”

For Navies, Juneteenth is also a way of bringing people together.

“I think what’s great about Juneteenth is that it’s really something that everyone can appreciate, every American can appreciate and enjoy because it really reflects all of our history,” she says. “It’s a way of bringing communities together to celebrate what it means to be an American and what freedom really means.”

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