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June 16, 2023, 6:05 a.m.

Lesson plan: History of Juneteenth and why it became a national holiday

Juneteenth-Richmond-VA-1905-e1623898523941

A Juneteenth celebration in Richmond, Virginia, 1905. Library of Congress

This lesson was originally published on June 16, 2021, and was updated on June 2, 2023.

For a Google version of this lesson plan, click here. (Note: you will need to make a copy of the document to edit it).

Overview

In this lesson, students will explore and discuss the history and context around the Juneteenth holiday in the United States. Topics explored will include the history of racial injustice in the U.S., the Civil War and the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally, students will be encouraged to explore the modern significance of Juneteenth and its long-term impact.

Estimated time

One 50-60 minute class period

Grade Level

Grades 6-12

Background

On June 15, 2021, the Senate unanimously approved a bill approving June 19 as a federal holiday for “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” The House passed the bill one day later. Still, many Americans are still unaware of the history and significance of June 19.

On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” in the Confederacy “shall be free.” While this may have freed some enslaved people on paper, the reality was much more complicated.

Source: PBS NewsHour via Associated Press

For instance, the Emancipation Proclamation only freed those slaves held under the Confederacy, not in border states loyal to the Union, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Delaware, where slavery was still legal after the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, slavery was still legal in Kentucky until Dec. 1865, when the 13th Amendment was passed, though Kentucky voted against ratifying the amendment.

Confederate states and slaveholders also resisted emancipation, and many people remained enslaved in Confederate states after the proclamation, even as many enslaved people fought for their freedom or escaped behind Union lines. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union issued an order in Galveston, Texas, alerting all enslaved persons that they were legally free.

At this point in 1865, Texas was the westernmost state in America and one of the last Confederate states to be occupied by the Union. Many slaveholders had fled Union advances in other parts of the South to Texas, along with the people they had enslaved.

While it took time for the logistics of “freeing” enslaved people to come into effect, the importance of June 19, or “Juneteenth” lived on. Considering how complicated emancipation was, many dates were considered for holding celebrations of emancipation, but over 150 years later, June 19 remains.

What originally was a holiday mainly observed by Texans has grown to be recognized all over the country. Each year on “Juneteenth,” (or more formally Juneteenth National Freedom Day), communities all around the United States gather and celebrate and reflect on the history of slavery and struggle for civil rights and equality, including the work that still remains after conditional advances such as the Emancipation Proclamation.

Warm up activity

As a class, watch the BrainPop video (8 minutes) below found here introducing Juneteenth. While watching the video, answer the following discussion questions.

Source: BrainPop

Discussion questions:

  • What is “Juneteenth”? What does it celebrate?
  • Why did it take so long for enslaved peoples in Texas to finally be free? What obstacles existed?
  • What were some of the forms of discrimination against newly freed people mentioned in the video?
  • What is the Great Migration?
  • How did Juneteenth become a national, not just regional, celebration?

After watching the video, separate into groups of 3-4 to discuss the focus questions (5 minutes).

Main activities:

  1. Along with their groups, participants should read through the article “What is Juneteenth” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. starting at the second section, “Other Contenders.” (10 minutes) After reading, discuss the following questions (5-10 minutes):
    • Why was June 19th chosen as the date to celebrate the freedom of all Americans? What were some of the drawbacks to other dates? Can you make an argument for why you think a different date might have been better and/or worse?
    • Gates describes several reasons why Juneteenth struggled to be remembered at times, and why it was able to endure. Compare and contrast what the BrainPop video included as reasons why Juneteenth struggled and endured with what Gate’s emphasizes. What do you think were the most important factors in Juneteenth’s momentum and remembrance continuing?
  1. At the end of the article in the “Juneteenth Today” section, Gates describes how Juneteenth has spread in the modern day. Exploring Juneteenth in your local community. Search for the history of Juneteenth in your local community and your state. (10-15 minutes) Find out:
    • “Does my state recognize Juneteenth?”
      • “When did they start recognizing Juneteenth, if at all?”
      • “What was the process of Juneteenth becoming a holiday in my state?”
    • If Juneteenth isn’t recognized in your state, see if you can answer, “Why is Juneteenth not recognized?”
    • Resources students can use are:

Additional activities

  1. Brainstorm or plan a Juneteenth celebration activity. This can be decorating a common area, bringing in a relevant local speaker or planning a refreshment break for your school. Juneteenth celebrations can be in the home, at school or in community locations. For more inspiration see these resources:
  1. Some activists feel ambivalent about Juneteenth becoming a national holiday, or reject the idea. To learn more about the nuances surrounding making Juneteenth a federal holiday, watch this NewsHour interview with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal recorded in 2020 amid the George Floyd protests.

  1. The day now known as Juneteenth was formally recognized as a national holiday in 2021, due in large part to the activism of retired teacher Opal Lee. Learn more about Lee's activism and the message of Juneteenth in this NewsHour interview with Opal Lee.

If classrooms finish and plan a celebratory activity, please share your ideas with us on social media @NewsHourEXTRA on Twitter.


This lesson was written by Cecilia Curran, NewsHour Classroom intern, while she was a rising sophomore at Amherst College. This lesson was edited by NewsHour Classroom's education producer and former history teacher Vic Pasquantonio.

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