This Friday is Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating emancipation from slavery. The day has long been celebrated by black communities in the U.S., but it’s still a topic that many students and teachers say isn’t covered—at length, or sometimes at all—in K-12 schools.
For Briyana Mondesir, a rising junior at Washington and Lee University, the omission speaks to what she sees as a broader disregard for black history in most school curricula.
“A lot of the way that schools depict black history, our history, is: We were slaves, then Martin Luther King happened, and then everything’s fine,” said Mondesir, the deputy director of Students for Educational Justice, a youth advocacy organization of high school students and young adults in New Haven, Conn.
This year, the group organized two events this week for Juneteenth: a virtual panel and community discussion about the importance of teaching black history in schools, and a march and teach-in at a local park.
Mondesir and her peers hadn’t learned about Juneteenth in school, she said.
It’s not just that teachers don’t discuss the day, and its significance, in class. Many don’t know about Juneteenth themselves, said India Meissel, a U.S. and Virginia history teacher, and social studies department chair, at Lakeland High School in Suffolk, Va.
Meissel, a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, remembers leading summer history and social studies trainings for elementary school teachers who had never heard of the day.
In the past few weeks, following nationwide protests against police killings of black people, local governments and corporations are commemorating the holiday, in attempts to show solidarity with protestors and the black community. A few cities and states have made Juneteenth an official, paid holiday, and some companies have also given the day off to their employees.
Mondesir hopes that this new attention to an important moment in the nation’s past will last, and will translate to a greater awareness of Juneteenth—and of black history in general—in the classroom.
“The pattern in America, it feels like, is that we celebrate and we honor a lot of things that happened to a majority white population. But things that happened to predominantly African American and indigenous groups, those are more pushed to the side,” she said.
The Textbook: ‘Not Necessarily the Whole Story’
Juneteenth is a celebration of June 19, 1865: the day that the Union army came to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas. By that date, the Civil War had already been over for more than two months. And it had been more than two years since the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.
But areas under Confederate control didn’t release enslaved people from bondage during the war. Juneteenth marks the date that changed in Texas—one of the most remote parts of the country at the time, where enforcement of emancipation had been inconsistent throughout the war.
In Meissel’s classroom, teaching Juneteenth puts the Emancipation Proclamation in context. History classes tend to teach that Lincoln issued the document, and it freed those who were enslaved, she said.
But emancipation wasn’t a single point in time—it was a process, Meissel said. Explaining the full timeline, she said, demonstrates “that what you get in the history textbook is not necessarily the whole story.”
Meissel starts her discussion of the Emancipation Proclamation with local history. She tells her students about the Emancipation Oak, an old tree near the entrance to the Hampton University campus, where the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time in the South, in 1863.
Then, she asks her students to read copies of General Order No. 3, the document the Union army read on Juneteenth in Galveston.
“And then all of a sudden the lightbulb goes on,” Meissel said. “They start looking up and going, ‘Wait a minute—it took them over two years to get the word to people in Texas that there was an Emancipation Proclamation?’”
This realization opens up a conversation about why it would take so long for emancipation to be enforced, and who would have had an interest in keeping that knowledge secret from enslaved people, and why.
Carlicia Alexander, a middle school special education co-teacher in Willis, Texas, agrees that it’s important to investigate these questions.
In years past, she’s taught Juneteenth as part of the 7th grade Texas history course that all students in the state take. But next year, she wants to give students the option to study the holiday as part of a project-based learning assignment. They’ll investigate historical questions—like why the order wasn’t read in Texas until after the Civil War—and Juneteenth’s modern-day significance.
Texas history classes touch on some significant moments in black history, but they don’t cover nearly enough, said Alexander.
“Our history didn’t start in Texas in slavery, and it doesn’t end in slavery, and then pop back up in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “Black people played a major part in the agriculture industry in Texas, they played a major part in the cattle drives. That’s where a lot of cowboy culture comes from, it comes from the Buffalo Soldiers.”
Alexander also wants Texas social studies classes to cover figures important to regional black culture, like Myrtis Dightman, the first African-American bull rider to compete at the National Finals Rodeo.
“Black history shouldn’t be reduced to, or centered around, all the trauma and all the struggles,” she said. “Black accomplishments need to be highlighted as well.”
‘Not a Superficial Conversation’
Mondesir, of Students for Educational Justice, also wishes her teachers in Connecticut had taken a more local approach to black history.
For example: Mondesir had grown up seeing the Amistad Memorial in front of the New Haven City Hall, but doesn’t remember learning about the Amistad revolt at school. The sculpture commemorates this mutiny in 1839, when kidnapped West Africans took control over a ship headed to sell them into slavery. Instead of making it to its original destination, the ship docked in Connecticut, and the Supreme Court eventually recognized their freedom.
“I knew there was a statue dedicated to it at city hall, but I didn’t know why it was there,” Mondesir said.
Last year, the Connecticut legislature passed a bill requiring all high schools to offer an elective course in African American, Puerto Rican, and Latino history by 2022. SEJ was one of the youth advocacy groups to organize in support of the bill, but Mondesir still worries about the law’s implementation.
She’s seen news stories from other places in the country about attempts to teach black history gone wrong, like teachers who ask black students to reenact slavery. “A lot of teachers aren’t really qualified 100 percent to teach this material, because they weren’t trained in how to teach this material,” Mondesir said.
It’s schools’ responsibility, she said, to make sure that these lessons are “not a superficial conversation, and that it’s not traumatizing.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.