Homework for Juneteenth

After two days of celebrating our new federal holiday, I confess I remain conflicted. But the ship has sailed, so to speak, and it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. I am ultimately a team player. 

I personally had a lovely day.  I did The Black Sit with Reverend angel Kyoto williams and a stellar series of yoga practices organized by Reggie Hubbard of Active Peace Yoga. I took a nap. I listened to “Redemption Song” and other liberatory hits from Bob Marley. I was not able to secure any BBQ. 

I learn and teach about American slavery and its ramifications all year long so another assigned day doesn’t affect my flow. I AM worried that the deep learning everyone promises this will encourage won’t happen, especially with the attacks on the 1619 project, critical race theory, and other educational projects to tell the truth about American history. I also see a lot of well meaning memes with simple narratives and inaccurate language. 

These resources from the National Museum of African American History and Culture are the most clear and accurate I have seen. They are a great place to start.

Who celebrates Juneteenth?

Why is Juneteenth Important?

2021 Panel Discussion

But if we are going to really do this, Juneteenth needs to come with homework. Let’s begin with an essential question: 

What was the long and arduous process of emancipation for people enslaved in the United States? 

(Because every colonized country where slavery was legal has ITS own story – if you want to go hard, go global)

Next, some objectives:

  • Citizens will be able to correctly retell the events in Texas that inspired the new federal holiday, Juneteenth.
  • Citizens will be able to identify key events and figures that led to emancipation in their state or prevented the legalization of slavery in the first place.
  • Citizens will recognize the efforts of Black Americans to free themselves throughout the period of enslavement.
  • Citizens will be able to identify the contents, purposes, and ratification processes of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which legally signified the end of slavery in the United States and paved a road to citizenship.

Activity # 1: Read both the Emancipation Proclamation and General Order No. 3, which was read on the first Juneteenth. 

Primary sources matter.  Juneteenth is going to require us to read and understand both of these documents so that we are clear about what they did and didn’t do. I am always struck by the list of states and counties included and left out of the Emancipation Proclamation. It gets really specific:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

What happened in the “except” counties? Then there is that last part of General Order No. 3:

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

One has to wonder how that worked. The Union Army comes and tells the rebellious Texans who refuse to concede defeat that they need to stop playing around and pay the Black people who are now their “workers”.  Did the “workers” go back home with their former enslavers and ask for a check? Clearly there is much more to the story. 

Activity #2: Find out about local emancipation or the prevention of slavery as a legal entity. 

Each former slave state (Northern colonies are former slave states!) has its own emancipation story. Slavery ended in Washington DC when President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862.  Enslavers loyal to the Union were compensated $300 for each person freed.  

Maryland adopted a new constitution on November 1, 1864, which ended slavery in the state. Black people had begun running away to DC and to join the Union Army. Many enslavers felt it was a lost cause. Still the new constitution passed by only 375 votes, many of which were absentee ballots from fighting soldiers. 

While California is not thought of as a slave state because of The Compromise of 1850 (probably learned about that in school, remember? 😉 people were indeed enslaved there.  First the indigenous people by the colonizing Spaniards, then enslaved people brought by gold rushers from the south and east.  Whether or not to allow slavery was actually a huge debate in the state government, and the waters were pretty murky until after the Civil War. 

While I am happy to celebrate Juneteenth as a national holiday and day of recognition, I hope it is not at the expense of local history.  DC and Maryland each have their own Emancipation Days, and I hope those commemorations continue. There are also states we don’t typically think of as slave states (looking at you, New Jersey), and they have their own remembrance and reconciliation work to do. 

Activity #3: Learn about Black people freeing themselves

My biggest issue is that the Juneteenth story often gets told as a white savior story, but it is really a white supremacy story about the lengths enslavers went to keep Black people in bondage.   Meanwhile we need to know about the tens of thousands of Black people who freed themselves, sometimes by running away, sometimes by purchasing themselves, sometimes through the law.  Olaudah Equiano, the 3,000 people who sailed away with the British after the Revolution, the Africans of the Amistad, Ona Judge, Henry “Box” Brown, Black Seminoles. The stories are myriad and amazing. Tell those too. 

Activity #4: Learn about Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and the process of ratification.

Reconstruction is definitely undertaught. When people complain they weren’t taught about Reconstruction in school, I know they aren’t lying. We just skip right over it. Luckily, The Zinn Education Project has an excellent selection of resources for teachers, but they would be great for families too.  I also saw a wonderful musical in Baltimore called The Moment Was Now. It is now a film and your organization can sponsor a showing. 

The Cliff Notes are that freedom was hard and simply not always immediate.There were economic and legal complexities and hindrances all around; for example, Black Codes and laws governing slavery by Native American tribes.  I recommend the excellent podcast, Seizing Freedom. It is expertly researched and produced and dives deep into the details of how Black Americans continued to fight for their lives and futures for years after the Civil War.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments are known as the Reconstruction Amendments. SLAVERY DID NOT END UNTIL THE 13TH AMENDMENT WAS PASSED.

Last year, I was invited to join the Kojo Nnamdi show to discuss civics education. Some of my favorite units have been talking about the ways in which citizens and governments partner together to bring about change. I believe it is really important that we understand how laws get made in this country and how American law changed over time to first support and promote, then ultimately end slavery. Passing these amendments was time-consuming and politically complicated. I recommend playing Race to Ratify by iCivics to get a sense of the process. Support was not necessarily enthusiastic or rooted in anti-racism. The Reconstruction project was undermined and effectively ended within a decade, followed by nearly 100 years of legalized oppression and violence. Getting into the weeds raises some interesting possibilities for further inquiry. There were Union states like Kentucky and Delaware who initially rejected the 13th Amendment and were also not subject to the Emancipation Proclamation. I am sure their emancipation process was…complicated.

Bringing these amendments into the present, everyone should watch and rewatch 13th.  Slavery officially ended when we changed the Constitution. But also, it is technically still legal. Thus the mass incarceration crisis (didyaknow over 70% of inmates in Maryland are Black, which is the highest percentage in the nation).  Other modern issues to explore include the current attacks on voting rights, lynching remembrance, and immigration reform. 

Okay. This project should take us a while. We have a year, folks. Let’s get to work. Ultimately, my hope is that our new federal holiday raises the bar for understanding complex stories, honoring the details, and asking further questions. There are just so many.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s