In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation had declared all enslaved people in the rebelling states free. Because Union forces did not control Texas at that time, the Proclamation had no practical effect in that state until Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston on June 19, 1865, and read the order. In Texas, June 19 came to be known as Juneteenth, on which day African Americans celebrated their freedom.
As the news of emancipation spread, many freedpeople, or formerly enslaved people, left the plantations. For many, it was the first time they had the freedom to travel. During the summer and fall of 1865, Texas roads were crowded with people loaded down with their possessions. Many freedpeople rushed to courthouses to legalize their informal slave marriages. Others searched for family members from whom they had been separated. Some gathered at military posts and towns, hoping to find paying jobs and military protection. Many who had been sent to Texas during the war returned to their prewar homes.
In 1980, Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas. Although not an official holiday elsewhere, Juneteenth has gradually gained popularity across the United States. In fact, some of the largest Juneteenth
gatherings are now held in the northern cities of Minneapolis,
Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More people are spreading the word about the holiday’s significance, and there’s a push for it to become a national holiday. Since 2020, even more cities, states, businesses, and school districts now recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday, where students and employees are given the day off.
Juneteenth festivities take many forms, including public speeches, parades, rodeos, and picnics. Many
people also gather with their families on the holiday to celebrate freedom and to reflect on their hopes for
How can you learn more about, teach, celebrate, and acknowledge Juneteenth? Read below for in-person and virtual Juneteenth classroom activities for students of all ages (and the entire learning community too!).
Juneteenth Lesson Plan for High School Students
High school teachers: download this free Juneteenth activity from HMH High School American History Oklahoma Edition to celebrate National Freedom Day with your class. In it,
students plan their own Juneteenth learning fair while researching local
Black leaders. This fair adapts well to online learning,
where students independently prepare two to five minute presentations. Feel free to swap Oklahoma in the activity with your state!
Juneteenth Class Activities for Middle and Elementary School Students
Let your middle school students explore Juneteenth through writing. These three prompts will allow them to develop persuasive, research, and creative writing skills while discovering more about the holiday.
1. Persuasive Writing
People worldwide honor Juneteenth in various ways. Juneteenth.com gives insight into traditions, festivals, ceremonies, and other events that recognize the holiday. Have your students research the different ways people celebrate Juneteenth. Afterward, have them write a persuasive paragraph convincing their school or community to create an event that honors the holiday.
2. Research Writing
Juneteenth allows us to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. For this writing activity, have your students describe another historical event that made the world a better place (other than the abolishment of slavery) in a few paragraphs. As an extension to the project, you can have them research to determine if there’s a holiday that recognizes the event of their choice to share with the class. If not, have them create one!
3. Creative Writing
Get your students’ creative juices following by having them write a short story, poem, or rap using the following writing prompt as a guideline: Why is it important that we celebrate Juneteenth today?
For elementary students, brainstorm ideas for a Juneteenth bulletin board, whether it’s for your face-to-face classroom or as a backdrop for a remote teaching setting. The example below includes powerful quotes from historical Black figures centering on freedom and education. The board also features background information about the holiday and even an image of the Juneteenth flag. Consider having your students use meaningful symbols, colors, facts, and pictures when creating the bulletin board.
Today, we at #ClarksonU celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday recognizing the emancipation of the last remaining enslaved people in the US. 153 years ago, Union Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 to the people of Texas, announcing emancipation of all those held as slaves. pic.twitter.com/XJkk8P0ciS
More people are learning about this annual holiday and how important it is to our country. Reading relevant literature is an excellent way to understand how and why Juneteenth is celebrated across the country. The New York Public Library provides a list of books to get you started. Like the Common Sense Education tweet below, consider sharing resources that educators can share with teachers, librarians, students, and parents to educate themselves about the holiday’s significance. You can even plan a virtual or in-person read-aloud!
What are some Juneteenth lessons you use in your classroom to teach students more about the holiday? We’d love to hear your ideas. Share them with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.
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A portion of this blog post was compiled using information about Juneteenth in HMH African American History and HMH United States History. The free high school activity is from HMH High School American History. See our full suite of Grades 6–12 Social Studies solutions here.
This blog, originally published in 2020, has been updated for 2021.