Juneteenth is an annual observance of the end of slavery in the United States, and it officially became a federal holiday on June 17, 2021. However, many Americans still don’t fully understand what it means and the events that took place. This article will discuss the history of Juneteenth, how to introduce it to young children, and ways to celebrate it in the classroom.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is an annual holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in America. It marks June 19, 1865, the day when Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, with Union troops to take control of the state and inform enslaved African Americans that they were free and that the Civil War had ended. The name of the holiday is a combination of the words June and Nineteenth. While there are many other names to describe the event, such as "Freedom Day," "Jubilee Day," "Liberation Day," or "Emancipation Day," they all encompass the triumph that came with being legally free.
When General Gordon arrived, he announced General Order 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. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."
The message freed the remaining 250,000 enslaved people in alignment with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued nearly two years before Granger and the Union troops arrived in Galveston to share the news. The Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished slavery in the Confederacy when Lincoln issued the ruling on July 1, 1863. So, what took Texas so long to emancipate the enslaved people? One reason is that a lack of Union troops made enforcing the order challenging. However, some historians blame the delay on slow traveling communication between states, while others believe Texan enslavers purposely withheld the information.
On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill that made Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday in the United States. It will be celebrated this year on Monday, June 19, 2023.
Although the Canadian parliament voted to recognize August 1 as Emancipation Day across the country on March 24, 2021, it is not considered Juneteenth. However, the holiday is said to be unofficially recognized amongst Canadians. Emancipation Day in Canada commemorates August 1, 1834, when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire.
How to explain Juneteenth to preschoolers
Talking to children about a brutal past history such as slavery may not be easy. It may be painful and maybe even scary for them to understand. However, with brightwheel's lesson planning tool, you can develop custom learning plans that include age-appropriate conversations that will reassure them that the events that have taken place are in the past while teaching them about how the resilience of the enslaved people and the support of their white allies will help them understand these past events in a balanced and healthy way.
Author and scholar, Beverly Daniel Tatum, delivered a very informative Ted Talk called, "Is My Skin Brown Because I Drank Chocolate Milk?”, where she discusses the conversations she had with her son about race and slavery. In the talk, she gives three points to consider when talking to children about slavery:
- Start by reassuring the children that the events regarding slavery are in the past. This will help reduce any anxiety or fear they may have of the events.
- Discuss how enslaved people resisted the cruelty and injustice they faced and didn’t just passively allow themselves to be mistreated, as often told in history books and school.
- Let them know that not all white people were supporters of slavery and that some were allies who worked against it.
She then shares a very child-friendly version of slavery that she told her son, who was four years old at the time. (This is a summarized version of her story about slavery). She began the story a little something like this: “A long time ago before there were grocery stores, and roads and houses, when the Europeans came to this country, they wanted to build all of those things, and grow cotton and crops. But they needed help to do this. So, they went to Africa to get strong and smart workers. But, they did not want to pay them. So, they took them from Africa and made them do all the work like growing the cotton and building the buildings without paying them, and it was unfair. They also didn’t let them go home when they wanted to, and that was unfair too. Many of them were able to escape, but not all of them. They also found people that were willing to help them. Some of the white people worked to help them, and eventually they were able to end slavery.”
To explain the events of Juneteenth and how the enslaved people were set free, you can tell the children that there were no cell phones back then and people didn’t get information as fast as they do today. You can then tell them that President Abraham Lincoln made a law that ended slavery for all, but the enslaved people in Texas didn’t get the information right away because they didn’t have cell phones to communicate. But, two years later, on June 19, 1865, someone came to deliver the message that set the rest of the enslaved people free and they celebrated, and now we call it Juneteenth.
Although this is a very summarized version of the story, it's explained in a way for children to understand. You, of course, can tell and create your own version of the story. You can also check out the following resources to introduce Juneteenth to children:
- Understanding & Celebrating Juneteenth: The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s (NMAAHC) early childhood initiative team put together this guide as a resource to help adults teach children about Juneteenth.
- Juneteenth: PBS Kids created this video to talk about Juneteenth.
- What Is Juneteenth?: Watch this cartoon with fun facts about Juneteenth from FresBerg Cartoon.
How to celebrate Juneteenth
Celebrating Juneteenth in the classroom allows children to actively engage in learning about Black history and culture. It also promotes values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom as you start important conversations about race and encourage children to respect and accept one another’s differences. Here are three ways to celebrate Juneteenth in your classroom this year.
Have a cookout to honor Black culture
The first official Juneteenth celebrations took place in Texas and included prayer and singing spirituals. Celebrations today include family gatherings, prayer, religious services, and festivals with music, food, and dancing. You can have a cookout in the schoolyard to honor the day, but don’t forget the food, which is a major part of Black American culture—macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, yams, and more.
Serve red foods to remember the resilience of Black people
If you’re going to have a festive celebration such as a cookout, you’ll want to make sure to serve red foods. Juneteenth celebrations customarily feature red foods to symbolize the resilience and joy of formerly enslaved people. You can pretty much serve anything that is child-friendly and within school guidelines to honor this day. Some foods include watermelon, beans, strawberries, red juice, red velvet cake, hot dogs, and barbecue sauce.
Read books about Juneteenth to celebrate stories passed down
You can read Juneteenth stories to honor stories passed down from enslaved people. Here are a few stories that will help children learn about and celebrate the day:
- Juneteenth for Mazie, by Floyd Cooper
- All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom, by Angela Johnson
- Freedom’s Gifts: A Juneteenth Story, by Valerie Wesley
- Juneteenth Jamboree, by Carole Boston Weatherford
- Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth, by Alice Faye Duncan
- The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States, by Alliah L. Agostini
- Jayylen’s Juneteenth Surprise, by Lavaille Lavette
Juneteenth activities for preschoolers
Create a Juneteenth flag
The Juneteenth flag is red, white, and blue, like the United States flag. It’s symbolic of the end of slavery in the US. Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF), created the flag in 1997 with the help of collaborators and Boston-based illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf. Using red, white, and blue construction paper, you and your preschool class can create your own Juneteenth flag to honor the holiday.
Make a Pan-African flag
The Pan-African flag was created to represent people of the African Diaspora and Black freedom. The flag's colors, red, green, and black, stand for the blood shed for the liberation of African people, African-Americans, and Africa's wealth, growth, and fertility. It also represents unity. Make a Pan-African flag painting using red, green, and black paint, white cardstock, clothespins, and cotton balls.
To start, have the children pinch a cotton ball in a clothespin and dip it into the red paint. Next, instruct the children to stamp dots on the cardstock paper with the cotton ball to make the flag. Have them make at least three rows with the red paint. Then, have the children pinch a fresh cotton ball, dip it in black paint, and stamp at least three rows using the black paint. Finally, with another fresh cotton ball, have the children dip the cotton ball into green paint and stamp three rows of dots to complete the flag.
Color a Juneteenth picture
For a quiet classroom activity, you can allow children to color freely with a Juneteenth coloring sheet. Try this coloring sheet of the state of Texas to help children understand where Juneteenth first took place. Or, you can try this picture of the Juneteenth flag.
Serve green and yellow foods
Green doesn’t only represent wealth on the Pan-African flag, but green foods are also a representation of good fortune. Yellow foods are symbolic of gold. Serve greens or any green, leafy vegetable, and yellow foods and explain the symbolism of the colors. For example, you can serve collard greens, corn, or sweet potatoes, which have historical context as they were crops the enslaved harvested.
Make a Juneteenth pasta necklace
This Juneteenth-inspired pasta necklace is a great way to build children’s fine motor skills while also celebrating this important holiday. For this pasta necklace craft, you’ll need red, white, and blue paint, resealable plastic sandwich bags (one for each color), yarn or twine, and dried pasta such as ditalini or rigatoni noodles. Start by opening your plastic sandwich bags and adding 1/2 cup of dried pasta, or however much you think your children need for each bag. Then, add red, white, and blue paint to each bag. Next, close the plastic bag and shake it up. Make sure the dried pasta noodles are completely covered in the paint. Take the pasta out of the bags and place on wax paper or paper towels to dry. Once dry, have children thread the yarn or twine with the noodles in a red, white, and blue alternating pattern.
Listen to Juneteenth songs
Songs are a great way to help children learn and retain information. Gracie’s Corner, an educational Youtube channel for children, created an original song called the Juneteenth Song to help children learn about the celebration of freedom. The song highlights the moment when the last enslaved African Americans learned about their freedom and independence.
Additionally, Sesame Street created a song called Let's Celebrate Juneteenth Song. Gordon from Sesame Street and the muppets sing to teach children about “Freedom Day.”
Create a Juneteenth-inspired sensory bin
Sensory bins support children’s development by engaging their senses of sight, touch, taste, and smell. You can create a Juneteenth-inspired sensory bin for your preschoolers to play in to encourage sensory exploration while learning about this historic day. You’ll need acrylic or tempera paint, chickpeas, resealable plastic storage bags, a plastic bin or container, scoopers, bowls, and spoons.
First, divide a bag of dry chickpeas into three different plastic resealable storage bags. Then add red, blue, and white paint to each separate bag. Next, seal the bag and shake it up. You’ll want to make sure the chickpeas are fully covered with the paint. After the chickpeas are fully covered, pour them onto parchment paper to let them dry. After the chickpeas are completely dry, pour them into the plastic container or bin. You can recreate the Juneteenth flag with the colors and let children explore.
Play Juneteenth bingo
Playing bingo with young children allows them to work on hand-eye coordination, and when using pictograms, it’s also a form of matching. For this activity, you’ll need Juneteenth-themed bingo cards. Hand out a sheet to each child. Announce the picture on the card and hold it up in front of the class. As you hold it up, explain the picture and how it relates to Juneteenth. Children can place plastic chips or beans on the images as they’re called out. When someone gets a row, they can shout “Bingo!”
Encourage the equality of humanity
Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom and the end of slavery, and is an important part of Black history. Teaching about cultural holidays like Juneteenth can be an opportunity for educators to start meaningful conversations about race and teach values of acceptance and respect to their children. Learning more about this holiday and Black history has the potential to inspire children to be bold and brave while encouraging the equality of humanity.