Juneteenth, also referred to as America’s Second Independence Day, marks an important event in our nation’s history, as does its declaration as a federal holiday in 2021. Incorporating Juneteenth activities into your classroom is a great way to engage students while promoting an understanding of the history and meaning of this important day. In this article, we’ll outline the history of Juneteenth and ideas for educating and celebrating it with students.
Juneteenth is celebrated in honor of June 19th, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granjer led Union soldiers to Galveston, Texas to announce that all slaves were free and the American Civil War had ended (“Have a Happy and Proud Juneteenth!”, n.d.). While many think of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as the key moment that ended slavery, the reality is that it wasn’t as all-encompassing as it’s generally portrayed.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was declared in January of 1863, only slaves in rebellious states that had chosen to secede from the United States were granted freedom. Slavery continued to be legal in loyal states (Nix, 2021). The significance of Juneteenth is that it marked the end of slavery for all, an important step in building the free nation that we live in today.
While Juneteenth has been a meaningful celebration for much of the Black American community since its beginnings, it was officially declared a federal holiday in the United States on June 17th, 2021 (Karnie & Broadwater, 2021). Since then, awareness and celebration of this historical moment has expanded across the country as a whole.
Today, typical Juneteenth celebrations can include religious services, educational events, and spending time enjoying food, music, and dancing with family members. There’s a strong emphasis on personal development, education, and celebrating and honoring African American culture (“Have a Happy and Proud Juneteenth!”, n.d.).
Engaging students in Juneteenth activities within the classroom is a great way to teach students about the holiday and encourage a holistic understanding of U.S. history. The activities below can all be easily adapted based on the age, reading levels, and learning styles of your students.
Crosswords and Word Searches: Try creating your own or use one of the many resources available online, such as this New York Times Juneteenth Word Search. This can be a fun and thoughtful activity to help students learn holiday-related vocabulary and spark discussion, especially during low-energy days or to wind down class time.
Videos/Discussions: Playing a video on the significance and history of Juneteenth in conjunction with an activity or discussion can encourage students to share their thoughts surrounding the holiday. We’ve included some recommendations in our list of resources below, but YouTube is a great place for finding additional content based on your classroom needs and lesson goals.
Arts and Crafts: An excellent option for younger and older students alike, arts and crafts can inspire students to get creative and expand their understanding of new concepts and ideas. Try having students create posters, brochures, bookmarks, drawings, or other creative projects surrounding Juneteenth celebrations or history. Alternatively, students can create presentations based on important figures in Black/African American history to commemorate the holiday.
Reading: Assigning reading both within the classroom and as homework can be an enriching independent learning activity for students. In addition to finding printouts online, there are a wide range of books that can be incorporated into the classroom for all reading levels. Check out our list of resources below for a few ideas to get you started.
Classroom Celebrations: Try throwing your very own Juneteenth celebration within the classroom! Not only will it help get students into the celebratory mood, but it can reinforce their understanding of the holiday and its history. You can also incorporate activities like songs, trivia, and games as well as food and drinks. Traditional Juneteenth refreshments include barbecue and red food and drinks (Whaley, n.d.).
Resources for Teachers
Thankfully you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to planning your Juneteenth classroom activities. Due to increased awareness and educational efforts, there are a plethora of online resources available. Here are just a few of the ones that we love:
Juneteenth Word Searches
Juneteenth Lesson Plans and Activities
Juneteenth for Mazie, Floyd Cooper
Freedom’s Gifts: A Juneteenth Story, Valerie Wesley
All Different Now: Juneteenth, The First Day of Freedom, Angela Johnson
So You Want to Learn About Juneteenth?, The New York Times
What Is Juneteenth?, History
Juneteenth, American Battlefield Trust
Whether you choose to incorporate full lessons or just an activity or two, getting students excited about Juneteenth is beneficial for both the classroom environment and the nation as a whole. For Americans, June 19th, 1865 marked an important step towards creating a free and united country for all. It’s a time for students to reflect on both the past and what type of country they’d like to build moving forward.
Juneteenth.com. (n.d.). Have a Happy and Proud Juneteenth!. Juneteenth.com. https://www.juneteenth.com/
Karnie, Annie & Broadwater, Luke. (2021, June 17). Biden Signs Law Making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/17/us/politics/juneteenth-holiday-biden.html
Nix, Elizabeth. (2021, June 17). What Is Juneteenth? History. https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth
Whaley, Natelegé. (n.d.). The History Behind Staple Juneteenth Foods: BBQ, Watermelon & Red Drinks. Black Restaurant Week. https://blackrestaurantweeks.com/juneteenth-food-history-bbq-watermelon-red-drinks/