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What Is Juneteenth and Why Is It Important?

By 10:20am PST June 18, 2020

Juneteenth commemorates the date—June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War—when hundreds of thousands of enslaved men and women in Texas finally learned they had been freed.

Juneteenth is an important milestone in American culture. It represents resistance, resilience, and Black Joy, which we’ll talk more about soon. First, let’s get to the real story behind Juneteenth because it’s a story that’s not told nearly enough.

A Short History of Juneteenth

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing enslaved people in the Confederacy, the news didn’t reach parts of the American South until after the Civil War ended (April 9, 1865). In fact, more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas didn’t receive the news until June 19, 1865. Yes, you read that right—a quarter of a million people continued to suffer in slavery for 2.5 years after it was outlawed.

Now, it’s easy for our 21st-century minds to immediately think, “That makes sense because they didn’t have the internet. News probably traveled slowly back then.”

Wrong.

Here’s an example for context: When President Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre, the New York Times reported his possibly fatal shooting (which we know led to his death) the same night. And news of the President’s passing the next day spread quickly thereafter. In other words, important news could reach the entire country, if the people in charge of local newspapers chose to report it.

Okay, back to the story.

Finally, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform the Lone Star State that slavery was outlawed in formerly Confederate states. Unfortunately, the path to liberation didn’t end there.

As American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains in his article for The Root, the ex-Confederate mayor of Galveston openly disregarded Granger’s orders and forced freed people back to work. On plantations, it was essentially up to enslavers to decide when and how to announce the news to enslaved men and women. Many enslavers waited until the harvesting process was complete.

So what happened to the formerly enslaved men and women who weren’t forced to continue working? According to Elizabeth Hayes Turner’s essay in “Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas” and Leon F. Litwack’s research in “Been in the Story So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” legally free Black men and women continued to be terrorized, shot, and hanged for minor “offenses” like swimming in the river or expecting fair treatment from their employers.

And the fight for true freedom continues today.

The Importance of Juneteenth

As the Smithsonian notes, former Confederate states had little inclination to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, especially during the Reconstruction era. And Jim Crow laws forced Black communities to celebrate the holiday on the outskirts of town or in secret.

In 1872, seven years after Granger announced slavery was outlawed in formerly Confederate states, a group of Black ministers and businessmen raised enough money to purchase 10 acres of park land in Texas. The land, now known as Emancipation Park, offered surrounding Black communities a safe place they could celebrate Juneteenth. The holiday’s resurgence has been underway since then.

Yes, Juneteenth commemorates the date enslaved people in Texas heard the news that they were liberated. But it also marks a pivotal moment in Black history, a moment Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes perfectly: “In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.”

Juneteenth celebrates the day Black communities in Texas, and now across the United States, joyfully embraced their rights as Americans and declared their intention to claim those rights, despite all opposition and obstacles. And they continue to do so today.

The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sparked a revolution that amplified the very reasons why #BlackLivesMatter. These resounding tragedies have forced people around the world to open their eyes to the plight of Black people in this country and beyond. While the universal call-to-action from individuals and corporations regarding #BlackLivesMatter seems new, it’s important to recognize that Black Americans have been fighting for justice since this country’s inception.

Yes, there’s still so much work to do, which is exactly why it’s so important to celebrate Juneteenth as a beautiful expression of hope and resistance.

Celebrating Juneteenth Is About Celebrating Black Joy

 

 

As described in, “Why You Should Celebrate Black Joy on Juneteenth and Every Day,” a blog written by XQ Curriculum Writer & Designer and former educator Ann-Katherine Kimble, if you break down the word “rejoice” into its parts—“re” and “joy”—you get its definition: to be joyful again. She goes on to say that joy is a form of resistance.

Take Juneteenth as an example of this. No matter how much people tried to stop or disrupt Juneteenth celebrations, Black communities found a way to celebrate their progress toward equality; to celebrate Blackness; to revel in Black Joy.

Kimble discusses what Black Joy means to her in her blog:

“Black people are tired. But we have a flame that—though it may flicker—never fully extinguishes. That light is our joy. That joy is an act of resistance against systems of oppression. Even on plantations, you could hear us rejoicing. In this original “melting pot”—full of people stolen and transported like goods, coming from African kingdoms, with hundreds of dialects and customs—you could hear rejoicing in the midst of oppression and inequity.”

Yes, working to dismantle systems of oppression is difficult (but necessary) work that often comes with mental, physical, and emotional scarring. It’s okay to feel anger and sorrow, but don’t let those feelings define you. It’s important to celebrate your wins along the way. That’s what Juneteenth and Black Joy are all about.

Why?

Because joy is contagious. Feeling that joy yourself makes it easier for others to feel it, too. So #ChooseBlackJoy, even if you don’t identify as Black. Kimble notes some of the ways you can do that in her blog:

  • Make space for the thriving of Black art, Black creativity, and Black innovation
  • Take your appreciation and share it through conversations rooted in current events that touch Black communities
  • Reach far beyond your immediate radius and be part of global conversations that educate, inform, and celebrate Black Joy whether it’s Juneteenth or a typical Friday night

Resources to Celebrate Black Joy

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Kleaver Cruz created The Black Joy Project, an initiative that started out as a 30-day social media challenge but grew to become a community of people celebrating Black Joy everywhere. The Black Joy Project is about finding freedom through acceptance. Check out the portrait series or add to it using #ChooseBlackJoy.

Color Positive showcases Black creative talent and aims to ensure their art and voices are seen and heard in and beyond the Black community. Color Positive is a source for anyone to discover the incredible range of Black artists.

Campaign Zero is a police reform campaign created by activists. The data-informed platform offers comprehensive solutions aimed at reducing and ending police violence in America. 

The Root is an online magazine founded by American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and highlights Black culture in our country. Check out their Black Excellence column which features news, photos, and videos that cover Black issues.

The Black Joy Parade is an annual live experience in Oakland, California that celebrates the Black community’s contribution to American culture. The event attracts more than 25,000 people, dozens of performers, and hundreds of vendors excited to celebrate Black Joy.

Spotify created a “Black Lives Matter” playlist that garnered nearly half a million subscribers, and counting. The playlist features beloved Black artists like James Brown, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Nina Simone, and more.

Netflix created a “Black Lives Matter Collection” consisting of films, series, and documentaries that discuss racial justice in America. 

 

 

 

Students discussing how to address systemic inequities in the education system during XQ’s Civil Rights Convening in October 2019.

 

Juneteenth Activities and Teaching Resources

 

America’s schools teach Black history as a unit and fail to properly educate our young people on the struggle for equality in America. We empower you to use Juneteenth as an opportunity to teach and learn more about Black history and Black changemakers—and to uncover and reflect on the stories that aren’t included in textbooks.

Historical moments like Juneteenth, the very topic you just learned more about, are often left out of American curricula. And when these stories are covered, important details are too often left out or altered. Take the story of Black Wall Street for example, a thriving community of more than 300 Black-owned businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, the 35-square-block area was destroyed by armed white mobs who looted and burned down businesses. The event is one of the worst acts of racial violence ever seen in this country and is often referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot, which some say denounces the fact that business, livelihoods, and lives were destroyed by the hundreds. And now, there’s a meaningful shift toward correcting this wrong by renaming it the Tulsa Massacre.

The details matter and so do the stories. If we don’t share them, we’ll never learn from our mistakes as a country, or how to improve as one either. History can only repeat itself if we let it.

Utieyin Ekwejunor-Etchie, XQ’s Operations and Special Projects Associate, wrote more on the subject in a blog titled, “Step Outside the Black History Canon This Juneteenth.” She offers advice on how to address these injustices by deepening your understanding—as well as the understanding of your students—of the change and progress Black leaders from the past and present made possible, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Bryan Stevenson. Beyond that, explore Black changemakers many students haven’t heard of—people like civil rights activist and poet Audre Lorde and American author and feminist bell hooks.

Use the stories of Black history and Black changemakers to help students make a more meaningful difference in the future. Showcasing the incredible history, work, talent, and creativity Black communities have contributed to our country’s rich culture helps students see the world from a more equitable perspective not just on Juneteenth but every day. It helps students have open minds and welcome diversity, whether they’re inside or outside of the classroom.

 

Juneteenth Teacher Resources

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Educators play a crucial role in helping students talk about difficult topics openly and honestly. Talking about topics like white privilege, police violence, and economic inequality encourages meaningful dialogue and helps students explore solutions.

We all play a part in perpetuating racism if we don't educate ourselves to be part of the solution. Use these resources to deepen the conversations about race and racism taking place in your community and our country.

The national Black Lives Matter At School coalition put together lesson plans and curriculum resources teachers can implement in their classroom. Enjoy material for every age: from early childhood to postsecondary education.

1619 is the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S. It’s also the name of a powerful podcast that examines America’s long history of slavery. Listen to the New York Times podcast and be sure to check out the accompanying curriculum from the Pulitzer Center. 

 

Why Everyone Should Celebrate Juneteenth

 

Since its inception, Juneteenth celebrations weren’t always welcomed. It’s time for more of us to celebrate this holiday, whether or not you identify as Black. And this call-to-action is more important than ever because we are still working toward racial and economic justice as a country.

Just because we abolished slavery doesn’t mean the work to end systemic racism did, too. Juneteenth should serve as a reminder that it’s up to all of us to be part of the solution. There’s still so much work to do. At XQ, we’re committed to doing everything we can to address systemic racism. Are you?

 


 

Let’s talk about it on the Rethink Together Forum where we’re discussing:

 

 

 

 

Be sure to sign up as a member so you can add to the conversation in meaningful ways.

Want to join a national Juneteenth celebration? On this June 19th, six Black museums and historical institutions from across the country are coming together to host a Juneteenth Virtual Celebration, featuring education content, artistic performances, and shareable discussion prompts. Find more info and RSVP here.

 

Keep the Juneteeth Celebrations Going:

 


 

This blog was a creative collaboration between three XQ team members: Tawny Ann De La Peña, Senior Copywriter, Ann-Katherine Kimble, Curriculum Writer & Designer, and Utieyin Ekwejunor-Etchie, Operations and Special Projects Associate

 

Stories and insights from the changemakers rethinking high school—in XQ schools and beyond.