Every year, millions of families mark the day when 250,000 enslaved people were finally liberated in Texas on June 19, 1865, with Juneteenth celebrations. But while many have long celebrated the historic event, some have only recently learned of it. For parents looking to educate their children about the holiday's significance, there are a number of ways to share and learn about Juneteenth with your kids through crafts, videos, virtual museum trips, and beautifully illustrated children's books.
While many Americans associate celebrations of freedom with the Fourth of July, the holiday doesn't mark a day when all people in the United States were free of tyranny. In fact, the enslavement of Black people in America continued for nearly 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As a result, Black leaders like Frederick Douglas have long questioned the hypocrisy of celebrating July 4, 1776 as the day the nation gained its freedom. Instead, many Black people living in the United States celebrate freedom on Juneteenth.
Gloria L. Howell, the associate director of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center at Indiana University Bloomington, tells Romper that "it is extremely important for parents, teachers, and those who educate our children to ensure that they gain knowledge about Juneteenth and its significance."
June 19, 1865 marks the day when Major General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, to deliver the news that all slaves were now free. It's important to note, however, that Granger's arrival in Galveston came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in January 1863. That's one of the reasons why marking Juneteenth means grappling with the full effects of slavery's legacy and with how freedom and justice has been historically — and continues to be — delayed for Black people in America.
"It's not only about Juneteenth," Howell says, "but acknowledging and honoring the history of African American life in a comprehensive and accurate way."
Read About Juneteenth
Help your children learn and understand the meaning and significance behind Juneteenth by sharing age-appropriate stories with them. Choose books written and/or illustrated by Black authors and artists that highlight the holiday's traditions, stories, and history. Many of these books may also be available at your local library, but if you want to make them part of your permanent collection, purchasing them from Black-owned, independent bookstores like Angela Nesbitt's Loving Me Books, which aims to use books to "promote self-love and unify children of all races," is a lot more meaningful than clicking "buy now" on Amazon.
For young children, there are picture books like Angela Johnson's All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom, Floyd Cooper's Juneteenth for Mazie, and Carole Boston Weatherford's Juneteenth Jamboree. Early-elementary school age readers may enjoy Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Drew Nelson's Juneteenth while middle school-age readers may like Dr. Charles Taylor's Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom. Check out additional Juneteenth book resources here.
But as Naomi O'Brien, the mom and primary educator behind Read Like A Rock Star, points out to Romper, for a book to truly have impact parents need to do more than give it a quick read at bedtime. "You have to give kids background knowledge so they can understand what they’re about to engage in," O'Brien tells Romper.
She recommends parents read through whichever books they've chosen ahead of time and identify any topics or vocabulary they'll need to explain to their children before jumping into the book. For books about Juneteenth, this could mean talking about slavery, racism, the Civil War, and Civil Rights. (Check out O'Brien's resources for talking about racism as a family.)
O'Brien also encourages parents to return to these topics and lessons as they move through the book, checking in to see what their child is confused about. "You could almost stop on every page and have a deep discussion about the words and the illustrations on that page," she says. The ultimate goal is to leave the child with a deep understanding of how meaningful Juneteenth is, which might mean having to engage in uncomfortable conversations.
Visit An African American Museum ... Virtually
African American museums are another fantastic resource for better understanding the significance of Juneteenth. In fact, Bamidele Demerson, the chief curator at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, tells Romper the history of Juneteenth is an important reminder of why we must protect each other's freedom.
"I think it is important to point out to children — and even to adults — some of the contradictions with people who consider themselves part of a freedom-loving democracy that were willing to keep the idea of freedom from those who were in fact free, legally speaking," Demerson says. "It's a warning that we must all be vigilant of each other's democracy and each other's freedom."
While Oakland's local Juneteenth festival has been cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, the African American Museum and Library at Oakland has made a wealth of information about Juneteenth available online, including how the holiday became an annual celebration in Oakland.
Although most museums remain closed due to the global coronavirus pandemic, many have shared information about their exhibits online or launched virtual exhibits. For example, older children can take a virtual tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture's Slavery and Freedom exhibition with the museum's founding director, Lonnie Bunch III.
Alternatively, the museum is also hosting a free, all-day Juneteenth event featuring a Juneteenth presentation, a performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and storytelling by Diane Macklin. You can also read more about the historical legacy of Juneteenth on the museum's Tumblr or browse pictures of objects related to emancipation, which are housed within the museum. Wherever you "go," before concluding your virtual visit, consider making a donation to support their ongoing work.
Create Juneteenth Flags
Created in 1997 by Ben Haith, the founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF), the Juneteenth flag symbolically represents "a bursting new star on the horizon," which carries with it freedom.
Children can draw and color their own Juneteenth flags, which features the colors blue and red separated by a downward curved horizon and overlaid with a five-point star inside a 12-point star. Learn more about the history of the Juneteenth flag and how it is flown at NJCF.
Share Black Stories
Howell encourages parents to use Juneteenth as an opportunity to amplify the many parts of Black history that are all too often glossed over or left unmentioned in school curriculums.
"All too often our children are exposed to a curriculum that is void of critical context that very much informs the ways in which society operates today," Howell tells Romper. "That includes textbooks, lesson plans, and classroom discourse in which Juneteenth and other parts of Black history are not mentioned."
As an example, Howell cites how the Emancipation Proclamation is often depicted as being "the happy ending to a terrible chapter in American history," when in reality, hundreds of thousands of people were illegally kept enslaved for two and a half years after the document was signed. "To that end, it is imperative, now more than ever, that we create opportunities to illuminate accurate accounts of history and amplify the voices of Black people," Howell tells Romper.
Parents can share Black stories, experiences, and history with their children while learning about Juneteenth. For example, books like Lesa Cline-Ransome's Before She Was Harriet and Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass (both of which feature beautiful illustrations by James E. Ransome) are a great starting point for sharing the stories of those who helped bring enslaved people to freedom.
Or take a cue from actress Kerry Washington, who recently expressed a desire to see children learn more about Black history than slavery and segregation, by teaching your kids about Maasai warriors of Kenya and Tanzania with Nick Would's The Warrior and the Moon: Spirit of the Maasai. Readings of additional books centering Black stories and Black people can be found on Kids Story Time on YouTube.
Watch Educational Videos About Juneteenth
Learn more about Juneteenth with this PBS Teachers video detailing the holiday's history and significance. Other educational kids videos on Juneteenth include this cartoon from Educational Videos for Students on YouTube. Older children may benefit more from The Root's video explainer on why Juneteenth is important for America or the history lesson Lori Brooks provides in this Inside Edition interview.