Juneteenth has passed, but do local students know about its significance?

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As June comes to a close, many students are enjoying their summer without realizing an important historic event has passed.

“The teaching of the history of Juneteenth is not only about African American History but American History,” said Jacqueline Williams, president of the Village Initiative. “Recognizing and teaching history of all citizens says that we are embraced completely. It says that you acknowledge our presence, our culture and our needs.”

The Village Initiative is a local nonprofit that works to create equity and recognize minorities in Williamsburg-James City County schools. Williams said the organization is constantly looking for ways to share minority stories and that the lack of information taught to students about a significant moment in history is a shame.

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Juneteenth is the oldest nationally-recognized commemoration of the official end of slavery in the United States, according to James Madison’s Montpelier. The celebration marks the last day that enslaved people learned of their freedom in 1865 in Texas.

While the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect more than two years prior to that date, Texas still maintained approximately 250,000 slaves until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued an order stating specifically that all of the slaves in Texas were free, according to the Public Broadcasting Station.

Since that time, the day has become recognized as an official holiday in 41 states, including Virginia. Yet, many students never even hear a mention of the holiday in their history classes.

Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for WJCC, said Juneteenth is not currently part of the U.S. History I or II curriculum nor in the Virginia and United State History curriculum.

“That being said, individual teachers may reference Juneteenth as part of other classroom lessons,” Cox said in an email. “For example, when learning about slavery in sixth grade social studies, Juneteenth may be mentioned in relation to emancipation.”

She added that because the holiday falls during summer break, there is not an organized observance in the schools.

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But individuals such as Williams want to see that change in the future, not just so African American students can learn about the holiday, but so all students can understand its significance.

“[Teaching about Juneteenth] says that you acknowledge our presence, our culture and our needs,” Williams said. “Our contributions to building this country which are deeply rooted in the history of slavery. To teach the full history of the slave, the struggle and significance of Juneteenth is an important part of American History.”

The Village Initiative is working on events in the coming year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of integration in the WJCC school system, and Williams said she hopes discussing that topic might open the conversation for how African American history is taught in schools overall.

The Village Initiative’s first event will be in August and will include round table discussions and the collection of oral histories of integration from local residents. An exact date has not yet been set. The second event on Sept. 22, “Integration Then and Now: Voices from the Community,” will invite the community to listen and learn from other participants about the district’s integration.

Moving forward Williams said she hopes those stories, and the historic day of June 19, will be taught both in WJCC schools and the local community.

“Ask yourself: where and when did I first learn about Juneteenth?” she said. “If we teach this early on, then it becomes a part of who we are and our culture.”

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