Taking a Day for Freedom: Juneteenth Highlights Opportunity for Teaching, Learning, Understanding, and Action

Friday, June 19, should be a day of celebration.

Yet, 155 years later, we still struggle. It’s an open and raw struggle for our nation about race, systemic racism, and the treatment of Black people in America. Protests fill our streets. Disagreements divide the nation. A global pandemic keeps us apart, at the very moment when we should strive to come together. It’s a challenging time in a challenging context. All people need time and space to process, to honor, to celebrate this day.

Juneteenth should be a national holiday.  There should be celebration, reflection, time to enjoy our freedom.

For many African Americans, the day signifies freedom as it recognizes the very day – June 19, 1865 – in which the last slaves in the United States were made aware of their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation. Some literally call the day “Freedom Day”; others refer to it as “Jubilee Day.”

The truth, however, is that many Americans – even some African Americans – don’t know or don’t understand the full significance of the day. As I talk with students each year (and even adults), some confuse it with the day Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; others have not heard reference of it at all until they heard about it over the past few days given recent demonstrations and recent media coverage.

As I see it, Juneteenth has never been recognized universally or really ever celebrated nationally, and it has only reached some mainstream events and celebrations over the past decade or so. (Supporting note: Juneteenth doesn’t show up in autocorrect on some smartphones until you actually use it! Sigh.)

Be that as it may, given my role in education and my position as superintendent, it is a perfect opportunity to 1) have a teaching and learning moment and 2) designate Juneteenth as a staff holiday given the relevance of June 19, 1865. Therefore, I support APS officially observing Juneteenth as a recognized paid holiday for staff.  Our district offices and school buildings will be closed on Friday, June 19, 2020. 

Now for the short history lesson:

During the American Civil War, President Lincoln signed a first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, declaring all enslaved people in the United States to be freed. It was formally issued on January 1, 1863. The Civil War started coming to an end with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

But news took time to reach the most remote regions of the nation. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved people in Texas were free. And that day became known as Juneteenth with celebrations starting within a few years of that date. Texas, however, did not officially recognize the day until the late 1970s. Gradually other states recognized the day, with Georgia following in 2011. Three states – North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii – do not recognize the date.

So again, I challenge everyone to use this as a teaching and learning moment, a chance for understanding, an avenue toward mutual respect. After all, there was a time when you (and I) were not aware of key moments of American history, and we did not understand. Hopefully, because of a patient, wise teacher, caregiver or friend, you were able to learn, grow, and understand more. 

Just as the first Juneteenth has been celebrated as turning point for our nation, perhaps now, June 19, 2020, can be another crucial pivotal point for all in Atlanta Public Schools, our state, our nation and our world to recognize collectively that Black lives matter. 

And more hopefully, more people of different backgrounds, ideologies, and politics really understand that we work best as a nation united and not divided.

This Juneteenth, I encourage you to not only reflect on how far we have come since the first Juneteenth, but also to recognize that we still have a long way to go.  Then take action and do something about it. I just did.

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