In many American schools, Black history lessons are short and meatless. Students may learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman, but they're lucky to get a lesson about legends like Angela Davis, Malcolm X, or James Baldwin. Some schools provide extensive lessons on Black history, but it's rare. In 2015, the National Museum of African American History and Culture conducted a survey of K-12 social studies teachers to gauge how Black history was implemented in their schools' curriculums. The research concluded that only eight to nine percent of class time — or one to two lessons — was dedicated to Black history.
One of the most consequential moments in Black history rarely makes it into the classroom. On June 19, 1865, the last group of enslaved African Americans in Galveston, TX, learned that they were free, marking the official end of slavery in the US. Juneteenth is a cherished holiday for the Black community, and after worldwide protests against racial injustice in 2020, the celebration has gone more mainstream. Forty-seven out of 50 states recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday, and Congress just passed legislation that will make it a federal holiday. But it's just as important that this piece of history be taught in schools. Here's why.
1. Black history is American history.
Kathy Hayden teaches second grade at a predominantly Black school in St. Louis, where Black history is part of the curriculum year-round. "It looks a bit different than when I was growing up," Hayden told POPSUGAR, describing her experience attending a private school, where Black history was only taught after a Black teacher was hired. "We learned about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks — the people that children already hear about — but I didn't know about anybody else," she said.
Hayden didn't learn about Juneteenth until she was in college. Her parents taught her the historical significance of that day, but the subject was never discussed in her schooling until she began her undergraduate career. She wants better for her students and all Black students. "They need to know that their history is super important," Hayden said. "I don't want them to get [to] 18 or 19, like I was, before they hear about it."
Too often, Black history is a priority one month out of the year, if it's recognized at all. Some schools treat the subject matter as extracurricular, which prevents students from gaining a full understanding of how Black history is sewn into the fabric of this nation. There are many lessons students may never learn if school administrators don't take steps to change which stories are told and when. Juneteeth is both Black history and American history, and school curriculums should reflect that.
2. Juneteenth is the Black community's Independence Day.
The Fourth of July is taught in schools and celebrated across the country with paid holidays and barbecues, but that day in 1776 only meant freedom for white Americans. Enslaved Black people weren't "free" until 1865, 89 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
As Hayden noted, so much of the history students are taught in schools occurred while people were still enslaved. The Civil War had happened and the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, yet slaves in Texas were unaware of their freedom for another two and a half years. Juneteenth is not just a day of celebration. It's a day to acknowledge slavery in the US, and it serves as reminder that Black people obtained their freedom much later than other Americans. These facts may be uncomfortable for students to learn, but history is not always meant to soothe us. It's meant to teach us.
3. Teaching students about Juneteenth is a step toward full acknowledgement of one of America's original sins.
History lessons in American schools often consist of inaccurate depictions of historical events. Children are taught about Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas, or that Native Americans and pilgrims were good friends who enjoyed a meal together on Thanksgiving. Historical erasure and modification can cause students to become misinformed and have an inaccurate understanding of the world. They deserve more than that. They deserve the truth.
Authentic liberation can only come from honest recollections of the past. Slavery happened. Centuries of free labor from enslaved people built this country, and recognition of that will drive racial equity forward. As conversations about reparations and lessons on critical race theory gain traction, making Juneteenth a part of school curriculums is a great first step in acknowledging and honoring the sacrifices and contributions that Black people have made to make the US what it is today.