I was a college student the first time I remember hearing about Juneteenth, the annual holiday established to commemorate and celebrate the emancipation of the last African chattel slaves in the United States in the state of Texas. The history books tell us that the feds showed up in Galveston, Texas with roughly 2,000 troops over two years after emancipation took effect to enforce the mandate. After hundreds of years of legal disenfranchisement, emancipation was a major milestone in our ongoing march toward equality in America.
Over the years, Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, has become a time for family and community oriented local celebrations. But, many are still searching for ways to establish rituals and traditions that acknowledge one of the most important historical events in our young country's past. Many of these celebrations have been held in African-American communities for obvious reasons. But, Juneteenth exists not only as a result of the perseverance, incomparable spirit and mettle of black folks in America; it is also a testament to the moral fortitude and political courage of white allies who fought alongside African-Americans to end one of the darkest political and economic arrangements in the history of man. We should all be celebrating Juneteenth! Check out the following for a few ways to bring Juneteenth to your school:
1. Invite a speaker from your community who is actively working to preserve African-American history and culture.
In the African tradition such persons may be called "griots," but today we call them spoken-word artists or storytellers. You might even consider inviting a local chorus or choir to come and share traditional spirituals and music of the civil rights movement that helped to sustain black communities during our darkest hours.
2. Host a debate or oratory contest.
Americans were deeply divided on the issue of slavery, and from that division emerged many eloquent abolitionists who used impassioned and morally-grounded arguments against the institution of chattel slavery. Have students learn about people like Frederick Douglass and other great Americans, and present their best speeches before a wider school audience.
3. Sponsor an anti-racism demonstration.
We've come a long way, but we are still witnessing disturbing disparities in access to quality education, employment, housing and healthcare between blacks and whites, and rich and poor Americans. We aren't as backward as we used to be, but we've got a long way to go. Work with your students to organize a rally that celebrates difference, and design posters to support a campaign designed to bring young people from differing cultural and racial backgrounds together.
4.Plan a civil rights field trip.
Some of us aren't fortunate enough to have the benefit of institutions like the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture (Baltimore, MD) or the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York, NY) in our hometowns, but many similar institutions offer a variety of school programs designed to educate young people -- not only about the legacy of chattel slavery in America, but also the legacy of resistance and activism against injustice that it nurtured. Many institutions will host plays and dramas that celebrate the holiday and engage young people in the stories that led to freedom. Get out of the building and explore what's happening in your town!
We've come a long way since June 19, 1865, the day slaves were told that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And, while we've got more work to do to ensure equality and opportunity for all Americans, we certainly deserve to celebrate how far we've come. Here's to freedom! Here's to America!