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Teaching Juneteenth in schools is crucial amid debates about how to tackle U.S. history | Opinion

Juneteenth was the United States’ first step towards freedom. Why isn't it taught more in schools?

Rich Blye holds up a sign reminding those that Juneteenth, which commenorates the end of slavery in the United Sates is approaching, at the Upper Darby Community Day of Healing on June 10, 2020.
Rich Blye holds up a sign reminding those that Juneteenth, which commenorates the end of slavery in the United Sates is approaching, at the Upper Darby Community Day of Healing on June 10, 2020.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The month of June is very important in Black history.

Mother Bethel AME was founded in Philadelphia on June 10, 1794, by the Rev. Richard Allen. June is also Black Music Month, thanks to Philadelphia’s own Kenny Gamble and the Black Music Association in 1979. But maybe most important of all Black history commemorations this month is Juneteenth.

Juneteenth marks the occasion of June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce all enslaved peoples were free upon the surrender of the last Confederate stronghold.

As a child, I was taught in school that the day of independence in this country, for all of us, was July 4, 1776. But for my ancestors, that wasn’t the case.

July 4, 1776, was a day of exultation for white male patriarchy on Indigenous soil.

The immoral ambiguity of the phrase all men are created equal — which did not acknowledge all men’s freedom — replaced the more concrete truth written by George Mason in the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, that “all men are born equally free and independent.”

I never learned about the debates over to whom the Declaration of Independence should grant freedom.

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I wasn’t taught about Somerset v. Stewart, the court case in Britain that freed an enslaved person and helped prompt colonists to declare their independence from the British Empire in the first place.

Sadly, there was a lot of history withheld from my learning. Unfortunately, this remains true for many students today. It’s because, as Dr. Jarvis Givens shared in his book Fugitive Pedagogy, “The absence of a deep study of the past conceals the function of white supremacy.”

This is why Republicans nationwide are attempting to outlaw the teaching of systemic racism, white supremacy, and critical race theory; it’s why the University of North Carolina recently revoked its tenure offer to esteemed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. If our society were to teach the full truth about this country’s founding, growth, and trajectory, it would require our government to reconcile with how it has treated Black people, and true reconciliation cannot happen without atonement.

But this fight isn’t about critical race theory or the 1619 Project per se. This fight is about maintaining political and economic power in the hands of white people as the United States becomes increasingly brown. (In fact, although white teachers disproportionately remain in the majority, white students are already in the minority, per the National Center for Education Statistics.)

Continuing to conceal white supremacy, especially in our classrooms, consolidates its power while proliferating ignorance both among those without power and those who benefit from the lies. If our goal is rightly to become fully human, meaning to exist as neither oppressed nor oppressor, we must teach this history. We must reexamine ourselves through the lens of history and trust students as they wrestle with the truth of it.

We must be unapologetic in our aim — and that includes making sure all schools teach Juneteenth.

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Juneteenth is important because it marks the end of the war fought to maintain enslavement in a state usurped from Mexico, which ended slavery in 1837. Surveys suggest only 8% of high school students are even aware that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War, let alone the history of enslavement in Texas. Certainly, the 13th Amendment formally ended enslavement (somewhat) in January 1865. But there’s no immoral ambiguity in the phrase all slaves are free, as declared by the Juneteenth order.

Young people must learn about Juneteenth to dig at the root of the question: How can America be anti-Black, when Black people died so that Americans might be fully human? Young people must learn that we are not only a nation of immigrants but a nation whose enslaved persons accomplished what the “founders” lacked the moral courage to.

Juneteenth was the United States’ first step toward freedom. By no means have we arrived at the place where justice resides. But in teaching Juneteenth to young people, we can show them that we as a people have it in us to get to the promised land.

The question is, are we willing to fight to get there?

Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in South Jersey. His “Urban Education Mixtape” blog at supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. @UrbanEdDJ.