Why Juneteenth Should Be America’s Education Holiday – Forbes

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

General Order No. 3

June, 19, 1865

One hundred and fifty-six years ago, enslaved people in Texas received official word that they were free. General Gordon Granger and thousands of Union Army soldiers arrived in Galveston to share the news. Four words marked the moment: “all slaves are free.” Two hundred fifty thousand enslaved people in Texas received this news.  It came, two and a half months after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. Despite the delayed nature of this information, freedom was met with celebration and jubilee.

Formerly enslaved people packed their clothes, left the sites of enslavement, and started life anew. They married, went to school, and sought paid employment. Some spent the early years of freedom looking for relatives stolen by the auction block and placed information wanted advertisements hoping to reconnect with kin. Others remained on the farm or plantation and kept working just like they did during slavery. Every year in Texas from 1866 forward, they celebrated Juneteenth through festivals, parades, oral history, essay and poetry contests.  They saw this day as a day to reflect on surviving slavery and celebrating freedom. 

This week, President Biden made Juneteenth (June 19th) a federal holidayMartin Luther King Jr. Day, established in 1983, was the last federal holiday created nearly 40 years ago. Some are asking: what does all of this mean? What’s next?  How will we celebrate Juneteenth? The answers to these questions are simple. Education. Now is the time to educate ourselves about the history of slavery and freedom in the United States. It is a time to explore an institution that shaped our economic, political, and social systems for hundreds of years. We have an opportunity to start a national conversation about history. But some are asking questions like, what will we teach our children? How will educators adapt their lesson plans? In what ways will school boards shape this conversation?  

The first lesson should include the fact that Africans were free before they were enslaved. They came from advanced and complex societies. They were Fulani, Ibo, Kongo, Bambara, Wolof, Akan, Ga, and Coromantee people (to name a few,) before they were captured and sold into slavery. Warfare, drought, and enslavement changed the course of their lives and shaped world history. 

Educators have the opportunity to create more inclusive history lessons, school board members have the opportunity to revise state standards, and teachers have the opportunity to explore new areas of curriculum. After the MLK holiday, textbook companies incorporated more robust discussions of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in order to place King in context of American History.  Elementary and secondary educators developed lesson plans that incorporated Kings’ speeches, writings, and activism as we recognized him as an important national figure.  Now that Juneteenth is a holiday, we will work to create a national syllabus to study the history of slavery in the United States. Like with King, we should study the writings of slavery such as narratives from the formerly enslaved, extant speeches as well as poetry and art. We can explore other artifacts that provide insight into this rich history of slavery and freedom. I imagine that we will learn about a difficult chapter in American history through education, celebration, and commemoration.  

Modern festivities that began as a state holiday in Texas in 1980 are now becoming popular in 49 states and are known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, or Liberation Day. This week I had the pleasure of meeting the 94-year-old Fort Worth resident, Ms. Opal Lee, who took up the cause of making Juneteenth a national holiday. What a day of jubilee this is for her. She spent her adult life marching, campaigning, and now witnessing this important milestone come to pass. Let’s honor Ms. Opal and honor the contributions of those who were enslaved, by using this national holiday to grow our knowledge of our history and heal as a nation.