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  • 24 Jul, 2024

Juneteenth Provides Fresh Approaches to Teaching Slavery, Black Resilience, and American History

Juneteenth Provides Fresh Approaches to Teaching Slavery, Black Resilience, and American History

When I share with high school students that I valued learning about slavery as a child in the Caribbean, they often seem puzzled. They wonder how I could appreciate learning about such a painful and harsh history. I explain that my teachers in St. Thomas and my fourth-grade history textbook emphasized not just the brutality of slavery but also the stories of Black freedom fighters, like Moses Gottlieb, known as General Buddhoe, who led a nonviolent revolt resulting in the abolition of slavery in the Danish-ruled West Indies on July 3, 1848. This day is now celebrated in the U.S. Virgin Islands as Emancipation Day. 

Learning about these heroes instilled in me a sense of cultural pride and an understanding of the sacrifices Black people made for freedom, encouraging me to persevere in the face of challenges. I believe Juneteenth, which marks the date in 1865 when Union troops informed the last enslaved people in Texas of their freedom, has similar potential for Black students in the United States. 

Students often tell me that their education on slavery focuses primarily on its suffering and harsh conditions. As a historian specializing in how slavery is taught in K-12 classrooms, I see several ways educators can use Juneteenth to provide a more comprehensive understanding of Black resistance and resilience. Here are some suggestions: 

Start Early, Focus on Positives: According to a guide by the National Museum of African American History for developing lessons about Juneteenth, children in the U.S. are likely to hear about slavery by age 5. At this age, lessons should highlight Black culture, leadership, inventions, and achievements rather than the trauma of slavery. This approach helps children later process the harsh realities of slavery with a foundation of pride and accomplishment. The guide states, "Juneteenth events can be wonderful opportunities to introduce the concepts of slavery with a focus on resilience and within an environment of love, trust, and joy." 

Highlight Black Resistance: Juneteenth celebrations honor not only the end of slavery but also the legacy of Black individuals who fought for freedom and justice. Emphasizing this resistance shows students that Black people were not just passive victims but active fighters against oppression. Figures like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and Sojourner Truth can be highlighted as freedom fighters. 

Connect Juneteenth to Current Events: Juneteenth can help students understand current racial justice movements. George Patterson, a former Brooklyn middle school principal, linked Juneteenth to contemporary issues during the Black Lives Matter protests, helping students contextualize ongoing demands for justice. Teachers don't need to wait for Juneteenth to appear in textbooks; they can introduce and teach it independently. Odessa Pickett, a teacher at the Barack Obama Learning Academy, emphasizes, "If it’s not in the textbook, then we need to introduce it, we need to teach it." 

Educators can use Juneteenth to teach much more than the end of slavery. The holiday offers numerous opportunities to discuss the fight for freedom and the importance of self-determination in overcoming oppression.