Juneteenth Activities for the Classroom

Uneteenth National Freedom Day Hero Image

Juneteenth is the oldest annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States; it is celebrated on June 19th. To learn more about Juneteenth and how you can celebrate it in your classroom, read on.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation had declared all enslaved people in the rebelling states free. Because Texas was still under Confederate control at that time, Union forces could not enforce the Proclamation in the 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 formerly enslaved people (or freedpeople) 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.

Uneteenth National Freedom Day People Marchi
Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, many freedpeople escaped to the Union Army lines at Newbern. Wood engraving with modern color. © Everett Historical/Shutterstock

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 the future.

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!

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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

According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), “By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 Black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy.” In fact, once the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, many Black soldiers had a hand in spreading the news of freedom. Black women who could not join the army found other ways to serve as nurses or scouts (with Harriet Tubman being one of the most known spies of the Civil War).

Let your students research Black men and women who served in some aspect during the Civil War. They can focus on one historical figure or even a Black military unit, and afterward, prepare a brief report on their findings that they will later present to the class.

Here are questions to get them thinking when writing their reports:

  • Despite not serving in the Union Army, what crucial role did Black women have during the Civil War? Though women can serve in the military today, what challenges do they face?
  • Three-fifths of all Black troops consisted of formerly enslaved people. How were Black soldiers treated in the U.S. military? What discrimination did they face, and what strives were taken to ensure they would be treated fairly? How did the Confederate army treat Black captives?

Finally, here is a list of potential figures or groups to get you started:

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?

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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.

Reading for Everyone in the Learning Community

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!

Share Your Juneteenth Activities

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.

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