Many students might not know the significance of Juneteenth, but that could change in coming years.
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 Service.
Since that time, the day has become recognized as an official holiday in many states, including Virginia.
But many students still aren’t even aware the holiday existed.
Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools last year didn’t feature Juneteenth in their curriculum for the U.S. History I or II nor in the Virginia and United States History curriculum.
But that gap in education is starting to change.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed an order last August to establish a Commission on African American History Education, said Charles Pyle, director of media relations for the Virginia Department of Education.
The commission is charged with reviewing the state’s history standards and contents and make recommendations for content updates and the professional development support needed for teachers to provide culturally competent instruction.
The commission’s report was originally due July 1, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, has been changed to Sept. 1.
Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for WJCC, said the district is in the process of updating its teaching and learning resources to be more reflective of the community. Going into the next school year, she said the district’s Social Studies team is in the process of creating curriculum supplements which will include Juneteenth.
Local organizations, such as the Village Initiative, are also looking to change the curriculum to not only include information about Juneteenth but African American history in general.
“It’s important because it notes a part of history that is not just African American but our country’s history,” said Jackie Williams, president of the Village Initiative. “It notes the time when all slaves were free, and to teach the struggle of the slave is important.”
The Village Initiative is a local nonprofit that works to create equity and recognize minorities in Williamsburg-James City County schools.
The Village Initiative has been working the past year in multiple ways to increase the spread of local African American history. The organization has recently formed a partnership with William & Mary and WJCC to research and develop a new curriculum that would include subjects such as Juneteenth.
Known as “The Local Black Histories Project,” the goal is to collect local oral stories and narratives that can be implemented in the classroom to give a close-to-home perspective for students, said Amy Quark, a member of the Village Initiative and an associate professor at William & Mary. Quark leads the project along with Omiyemi Artisia Green, the director of the Africana Studies program at the college.
Quark said it was discovered during students’ research that there had been “Emancipation Day” parades down Duke of Gloucester Street in past years. According to historian Andrea Foster, the Emancipation Day parades were organized by the African American community on Jan. 1 each year and was one of the only events to recognize their history.
The parades featured floats and bands alongside residents as they walked down Duke of Gloucester Street. Participants would gather after the parade to read the Emancipation Proclamation and celebrate their freedom into the evening.
While that wasn’t a Juneteenth celebration, Quark said it’s important to understand the history and how it’s contributed to the celebrations of African Americans the community has today.
“I think the local history component is really a useful one to help bring the history alive for students,” she said. “Sometimes there are national events that are important but can seem distant from students’ everyday lives. There’s a difference from just learning about Juneteenth and then knowing these parades happened on [Duke of Gloucester] Street where they live.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused the project to slow down slightly, but faculty and students are still regularly working on collecting the history and hope to have it ready for the classroom by fall 2021.
With this new project underway, Williams said there is a positive shift in recognizing local African American history and the significance of Juneteenth.
The area in just the past year has gone from not recognizing Juneteenth in the classroom to finding ways to talk about all aspects of African American history with students.
“We’re in a whole new way this year,” Williams said. “Our partnership with the schools has been nothing short of a blessing and they’ve helped us to build a bridge of unity.”
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