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June 26, 2020

Juneteenth and the Case for A National Holiday

Ask students: What are the benefits of marking a historical moment or honoring historic Americans with a national holiday?


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Juneteenth History: Should We Have A National Holiday?

Juneteenth recognizes the day in 1865 when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, signaling to slaves living in the farthest reaching U.S. state at the time that they were freed. Though the proclamation had been signed two years earlier, Texas was more isolated from Union soldier occupation and free from enforcement before then. Watch the video, read the summary and answer the discussion questions. This clip is one part of a 30-minute Q&A with professor Mark Anthony Neal about the origin and meaning of Juneteenth. To watch the entire conversation, click here

  • The Emancipation Proclamation legally abolished slavery in all states belonging to the Confederacy, though it took the 13th Amendment, also ratified in 1865, to formally free slaves in non-Confederate slave-holding states such as Kentucky and Delaware.
  • Juneteenth celebrations vary from region to region, and it has never been a federal holiday. It is recognized in most states but only a paid holiday for state employees in a small (but growing) number of states.
  • This year, amidst growing protest movements against racial inequalities and police brutality, Juneteenth is receiving more attention than ever, including greater state-by-state recognition, businesses granting days off and a push to make June 19 a federal holiday.

Juneteenth HIstory: Discussion Questions

  1. Essential question: Should Juneteenth be a federal holiday? What are the benefits of marking a historical moment or honoring historic Americans with a national holiday? Are there any drawbacks?
  2. Why do you think Juneteenth has become a day memorialized by celebration in communities across the country and not other dates related to the abolition of slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was announced on September 22, for instance)?  
  3. If you could chose one historic moment or individual to memorialize with a federal holiday, what or who would it be? Why?
  4. Media literacy: This clip comes from an extended Q&A with Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African American  Studies at Duke University. Why do you think Professor Neal was asked to participate in this Q&A and not, say, a professor from a history department? Who else might you want to hear from to understand the importance of Juneteenth and how and why it is celebrated?

Juneteenth History: Extension Activity

Have students read this history and tribute to Juneteenth by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and ask them to reflect on the following questions:

  1. Gates explains that the reading of General Orders, Number 3 by General Granger in Galveston, Texas wasn’t “instant magic,” with all burdens of servitude and inequality lifted at once. How does he describe the ways former slaves were still oppressed, enslaved or coerced even immediately after June 19? If life didn’t change that day for many slaves in Texas, why do you think it became a day of celebration anyway?
  2. General Orders, Number 3 includes the text, “This [order] 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.” What do you think was the effect of proclaiming that former slaves were now free but should instead work for former masters as paid employees?

In the postscript, Gates writes movingly of his own experience learning about Juneteenth in college (he hadn’t heard of it growing up in West Virginia), as well as the significance of Juneteenth despite—even because of—”the bloody path America took by delaying it and deferring fulfillment” of the order’s proclamation. Have your students reflect on when they themselves learned of Juneteenth (it may be today), and what it means that the day is only now part of a nation-wide conversation.

Reprintedwith permission of PBS NewsHour Extra.

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PBS NewsHour Classroom helps teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories.

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