Note: We used the traditional terms of ‘slavery’ and ‘slaves’ in our infographic as it’s generally taught this way in schools. The target audience of this article is kids so we wanted to use familiar terminology. However, our blog post reflects the more appropriate ‘enslavement’ and ‘enslaved people’ that separate a person’s identity from their circumstance.
Why Is Juneteenth Important?
Just over a year past George Floyd’s murder and the invigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, we must continue to do the work. We must put out the effort to raise anti-racist kids as we move toward a truly equal society, and we must include the not-so-shiny parts of United States history. We need to teach kids about enslavement, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, redlining, and America’s failure to lift up Black communities. Kids are capable of understanding the history behind racial injustice and systemic racism. Moreover, these topics are fundamental if we are to make sense of race relations today.
Imagine teaching your kids that lions eat deer and expecting them simply to accept that as fact. Without the context of lions needing food, predators being a natural part of the food chain, the circle of life, and all that jazz, it wouldn’t make sense. Why would one animal just eat another? Similarly, teaching kids that people of color aren’t yet truly equal makes no sense without the historical context of how we got here. It’s unreasonable that something as random and uncontrollable as skin color potentially defines one’s treatment by others and one’s life trajectory. It would be hard for kids to accept because it’s really not a logical cause and effect.
As a native Texan, celebrating and learning about Juneteeth is especially relevant. It’s also an important part of American history. But first, let’s start with some basics for the adults before we discuss how to celebrate with kids.
What is Juneteenth?
President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation effective January 1, 1863, which set all enslaved people free. However, due to the Civil War and questions about Union power, enslavement continued in the South. The message of freedom didn’t even start spreading in the South until Robert E. Lee finally surrendered his Confederate troops on April 9, 1865.
However, enslavement continued in Texas — perhaps because it was further South or perhaps because the greedy farmers wanted one last harvest using free, enslaved labor. Finally, on June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth, General Granger rode into Galveston, TX. He issued order No. 3 that stated:
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Upon hearing they were free, the Black community celebrated with jubilation and joy at finally being liberated.
*Note: Texas was technically not the last state to free its slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation covered only the Confederate states. Two Union states, Kentucky and Delaware, never seceded from the Union and didn’t officially abolish slavery until the adoption of the 13th amendment on December 6, 1865.
Having Age-Appropriate Juneteenth Discussions with “Littles”
Juneteenth may be hard to explain to your little ones, especially if they have never heard about enslavement before. We briefly explained enslavement to our son when he was 5. At the time, we talked more about racism, skin color, and how people haven’t always been nice to Black people. Now that he is almost 6 years old, this is how we explain Juneteenth to him:
A long time ago, White people were being very mean to Black people and made them work for them without paying them. (How would that make you feel?) On June 19th, or Juneteenth, the leaders told everyone that they couldn’t make Black people work for them for free anymore. Also, they were told that the Black people were free to decide where they wanted to work and live. The Black people were so happy to hear this news, and they celebrated and celebrated! So, every year, on that same date of June 19th, we celebrate the freedom of Black people from the White people being mean to them and not paying them for their work.
After you provide your explanation, see what questions your kids may have and feel out the conversation from there. A great book to help you discuss enslavement with younger kids is Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr. For more helpful ideas, check out 10 Children’s Books Celebrating Juneteenth.
Juneteenth Infographic for Kids
Our Juneteenth infographic is a great way to introduce discussions on enslavement, Juneteenth, and its meaning. The keywords in the infographic are in 3 colors:
- Red represents the period before Juneteenth. It is marked by enslavement, inequality, the landowners “owning” slaves, oppression and inequality. This also includes the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy and the move towards the abolition of enslavement.
- Black represents positive steps toward the freeing of the enslaved people. They include Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Granger’s announcement in Galveston, gaining independence, etc.
- Green represents the annual celebration of Juneteenth to commemorate the true freedom of Black people in the United States. Festivities may include music, dancing, soul food, barbeques, Miss Juneteenth contests, and a coming together of community. It is also a time to remember, learn and reflect upon this terrible time in U.S. history.
Juneteenth is not yet recognized as a national holiday. However, the push for it is stronger than ever. The state of Texas, via State Representative Al Edwards, was the first to declare Juneteenth a state holiday, starting with June 19, 1980. So, encourage your Representatives to support making Juneteenth an important national holiday!
Racial Justice: Resources for Teaching Children
Black History Month Resources for Kids
Discussing Intersectionality with Children