The statewide union celebrated Juneteenth with a look back at the origins of the holiday, and a look forward to why the lessons it teaches are necessary today.
Juneteenth commemorates the day news of emancipation reached the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas in 1865 — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. President Joe Biden officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday in June.
“Opal Lee, a 94-year-old woman called the ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ worked tirelessly to make the day a federal holiday,” said J. Philippe Abraham, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, in welcoming remarks. Abraham, who hosted the event, noted that Lee began her crusade in 2016 with a 1,400-mile trek from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to ask President Barack Obama to make Juneteenth a holiday. Lee attended the official White House signing ceremony. “She is the embodiment of grace, courage and perseverance – the world needs more Miss Opal Lees,” continued Abraham.
“Juneteenth: Why We Need to Celebrate!” is the latest chapter in the statewide union’s Many Threads, One Fabric social justice series. Held in conjunction with NYSUT’s Civil and Human Rights committee, event highlights included speakers, a musical performance and a 1940s era archival recording of a woman who witnessed the emancipation first-hand as a child. NYSUT President Andy Pallotta saluted Abraham’s work over the past year. “The Many Threads, One Fabric series has been fabulous, I’m excited to join in the celebration.”
Participants explored how the roots of slavery continue to impact our society today and shared when and how they learned about Juneteenth – most only in college as history majors. West Seneca Teachers Association member Patrick Braunscheidel, a social studies teacher at West Seneca Senior High School, explained that the southern ruling class promoted segregation as a means to foster discord between poor whites and freed enslaved people and keep the groups divided. “Tremendous friendships formed between these groups during reconstruction, they grew so close they sent several Black representatives to congress,” he said. “In 1890, Jim Crow was born legislating segregation which fostered suspicion and many of the problems we face today.”
NYSUT Board member Wayne White, a social studies teacher at Bellport Senior High School on Long Island, noted the marginalization of Black history in American public schools. “When I was growing up, the history of people of color was a secondary story in grade school, and when it was taught it was through a Eurocentric model,” he said. “They taught about Dr. King, but omitted the race riots and segregation, and slavery focused on picking cotton, not the torture, rape and murder of enslaved people.”
Preya Krishna-Kennedy, Bethlehem Central TA, usually highlights Juneteenth for her majority white high school students, but the holiday designation gave it new meaning. “We discussed the idea of who controls history and why it passed now in terms of other movements like the Floyd murder. It’s just one step in the struggle for justice and equality, both a celebration and a call to action.”
Teaching controversial topics without falling into the trap of defending them is difficult, said NYSUT Board member Joe Cantafio, West Seneca TA president. “Juneteenth is a factual moment in history and to realize the promise of America, we must acknowledge and learn about our errors even as we celebrate,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to teach students that raising others up doesn’t hurt you – we lift all people when we lift any people.”
“Patriotism isn’t just about loving your country, it’s about understanding your country and realizing that we aren’t perfect,” said NYSUT Board member Dora Leland, Horseheads TA vice president. “History is a perspective of many contributions and cultures and it’s not always pretty. We have to resolve to do better.”
To learn more about NYSUT’s Many Threads, One Fabric events, visit nysut.org/manythreads.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHING JUNETEENTH
The Juneteenth celebration marks a day in 1865 when enslaved Texans learned they’d be free—two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered and ended the Civil War and two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Initially a uniquely Texan observance, Juneteenth has now been recognized in some form in every corner of the country.
There are many ways to teach students about this celebration. Lessons about Juneteenth need to recognize the challenges those who fight injustice have always faced, but they shouldn’t be marked only by the tragedy of enslavement. Students, particularly Black students, can find empowerment in the jubilant celebrations of culture, activism and the humanity of a people.