By Dr. Lisa Thomas
Why has Juneteenth been overlooked?
Depending on where you live and in what county your child(ren) attend school, you may have a holiday or a set of holidays that other states or counties do not celebrate. I grew up in the South, and Fat Tuesday was as sacrosanct as Easter, at least calendarwise, and we did not go to school! Mardi Gras in French translates to “Fat Tuesday,” and its history can be traced back to medieval Europe and leads up to Ash Wednesday. None of that really mattered to us; we looked forward to being out of school, parade floats, marching bands and yes, Moon Pies and beads.
Many years later, I moved to Maryland and taught in a school system where we honored and celebrated several Jewish holidays; for some of those days, there was no school for the entire district.
In 2018, as a nod to or in recognition of the millions of Asian and Asian Pacific Islander (AAPI) residents in California, the state Legislature passed legislation observing Lunar New Year in California. The new year takes place at the end of January or beginning of February and is mainly celebrated by Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and other Asian communities. In the city and county of San Francisco, Lunar New Year is an official school holiday.
The Battle of the Flowers began as a patriotic celebration to honor the heroes of the Alamo, Goliad and the Battle of San Jacinto and has since evolved into one of the oldest and largest celebrations in the country, featuring parades, marching bands, festivals and of course, food. The San Antonio Independent School District closed for the last Battle of Flowers in 2019 and was obviously impacted by the pandemic in 2020 and now 2021.
Dear readers, you’ve hung in there long enough and are probably scratching your head wondering “Just where in the heck is she going with this, and what does this have to do with Juneteenth?”
Quite a bit actually. Stick around just a tad bit longer, please.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, short for “June 19,” is the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state to ensure that all enslaved people were freed from their slave owners. Their emancipation or liberation came a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. That’s another blog for another time, but the reason I played holiday hopscotch above is that across this country, across generations, county and party lines, the political will and operationalized agendas have served a narrative that has finally met a reckoning we can’t ignore: Juneteenth has never been explicitly taught in American history.
How is it that not every student who exits U.S. school systems does not or cannot articulate with any degree of confidence what Juneteenth is or its relevance to the most abhorrent period in American history?
I started this piece with a reference to Fat Tuesday. It was more than just a day off. I learned about religious practices, medieval history, French government influence and the role of the Catholic Church. It was interwoven into the curriculum that was adopted by the state of Alabama. The Jewish holidays broadened the understanding of the community and allowed observant staff to participate fully in worship. The Battle of the Flowers commemorates a legacy that is indelibly Texan. The Lunar New Year observance is a recognition of AAPI community heritage and traditions. Even these holidays and observances are not without controversy. Yet, somehow, state education agencies made space, found resources, developed curricula and aligned learning standards, i.e., political will, priority, and recognition and status.
How does one celebrate Juneteenth, and what is the Juneteenth flag?
June 19, 1865, is the day all people living in the United States, including the formerly enslaved, were officially granted freedom. The celebration is a recognition of that freedom. Juneteenth is celebrated across the country among Black families and friends with street festivals, parades and concerts. For some, there is even a flag ceremony. The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by Ben Haith, former National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF) Massachusetts state director and founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. The colors are the same as in the U.S. flag—red, white and blue—showing that the formerly enslaved were and are Americans; the Juneteenth flag features red and blue striped sections separated by an arc that signifies new horizons and opportunity. In the middle is a large white "star of Texas bursting with new freedom throughout the land," according to the NJOF site.
The star jointly represents Texas as the Lone Star State and symbolizes the freedom of all African Americans in all 50 states. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia officially commemorate or observe Juneteenth; Texas, which made it a state holiday in 1980, was first to do so. In 2007, "June 19, 1865" was added to the flag. However, despite these being the formal colors of Juneteenth, it is also common to see people honoring Black Independence Day with red, black and green. These are the colors of the Pan-African flag, which was created in 1920 and encouraged by Marcus Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and Jamaican activist. This flag honors people of the African Diaspora and also symbolizes Black liberation and freedom.
For those of you who are not Black but would like to recognize Juneteenth every year, it’s a great day to support Black culture through its arts or supporting locally owned Black businesses. Additionally, make time to learn more about major firsts from African Americans, read books by Black authors, catch a film that honors Black life. And why relegate these activities to just one day a year? Blacks have been and continue to make contributions to every aspect of society daily and deserve the same deliberate energy, political will and resources to have these contributions properly chronicled, attributed and valued as those of their non-Black peers.
Progress has been made on awareness of Juneteenth, but there is still much more work to be done. If your children can miss school to scramble for a Moon Pie and beads, surely it’s not that far-fetched to think that they could engage in a day of service to commemorate the liberation of freed Americans?
Find lesson plans, activities and other materials to help educate and engage students in learning about Juneteenth in Share My Lesson's Teaching Juneteenth collection.