Juneteenth: Knowing our history

June 16, 2023 | National

“Juneteenth marks one crucial point in time, but also reminds us to sustain the liberation efforts that made the events of June 19, 1865 possible.”

It’s sad and ironic that today, just two years after President Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday, powerful political forces are working diligently to ensure that children never learn about Juneteenth in school. Efforts to ban books present a narrow, whitewashed version of America’s history and conspire to perpetuate the racist systems that created today’s starkly inequitable conditions. That same dishonesty prevents all students, especially Black and Brown students, from even acquiring the vocabulary to critique those systems. 

That’s why on this Juneteenth, we are proud to celebrate the CDF Freedom Schools® program. To cap our largest-ever CDF Freedom Schools training just two weeks ago, our graduation speaker, author Derecka Purnell, declared this group of CDF Servant Leader Interns the “most important class ever” because of the present challenges to teaching the truth. More than just enriching reading skills, CDF Freedom Schools enrich the minds of young scholars with book characters who look like them, with themes and stories that resonate with them, and with history that reflects the Black freedom struggle and other fights for justice. In the spirit of the Freedom Summer of 1964, CDF Freedom Schools inspire movement toward a more just America by first casting light on the structural injustice our scholars and their families endure, then activating their power to make change. 

In his best-selling book How the Word Is Passed, journalist Clint Smith offers a powerful reflection on his visit to a Juneteenth commemoration led by Scholars from the Nia Cultural Center CDF Freedom School in Galveston, TX. Please take a few minutes today to read Clint’s reflection and consider the formative effect of children’s interaction with their true history—and what could be the unfortunate impact of that history’s absence. 

Juneteenth marks one crucial point in time, but also reminds us to sustain the liberation efforts that made the events of June 19, 1865 possible. CDF embraces that charge today and everyday as we build community with you so young people grow up with dignity, hope, and joy. 

“Our Independence Day”—Galveston Island 

Excerpted from the book How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith 

“I’m Major General Granger, commanding general of the District of Texas. This morning we would like to present to you some of the history of those enslaved in the United States until this day, when they were set free. We’re glad for you to be here with us. This is a very, very important day in the history of Galveston, the history of Texas, and the history of the United States. On this day the promise of freedom became reality.” 

A student, a young woman who looked to be about sixteen, walked up to the microphone holding a white placard that read “1492.” Everyone in the audience adjusted their chairs and turned their heads to get a better look. She placed the placard over the microphone, her arms extending outward so everyone in the crowd could read what it said on the front, while she read from the other side. “In 1492, Europeans arrived at the Americas searching for the three Gs: gold, glory, and God. Long before enslaved Africans arrived, the Spanish enslaved some of the Native populations against the wishes of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.” 

As she pulled the placard down and walked away from the microphone and toward the wall, the man impersonating Union general Granger spoke again, setting the stage for the next young person to come up. “In 1528,” he said, “the first non-Native enslaved person arrived in Galveston.” Another young woman walked to the microphone and did the same as the young woman before her. “The first non-Native slave in Texas was Estevanico, a Moor from North Africa. Estevanico was captured and enslaved by the Spanish when he was a child; he accompanied his master, Captain Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, on the Narváez expedition, which landed at present-day Tampa. In November of 1528, their barges went aground off the coast of Texas. Estevanico, Dorantes, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, the only survivors, spent several months living on a barrier island, now believed to be Galveston Island, before making their way in April of 1529 to the mainland.” 

The man in the Union Army uniform spoke again. “In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived.” It continued on like this for several minutes, student after student coming up to the microphone, providing a parade of facts in chronological order, leading the listener up to June 19, 1865—Juneteenth. The students, who ranged from elementary-age children to teenagers, had come from the Nia Cultural Center’s Freedom School. The program, part of an initiative run by the Children’s Defense Fund, offers six weeks of summer-enrichment programming for young people, with a specific focus on helping them understand their relationship to history. 

I watched these young people read to the audience parts of history that placed our country in context. I felt, in that moment, envious of them. Had I known when I was younger what some of these students were sharing, I felt as if I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis that for so long I could not name—a paralysis that had arisen from never knowing enough of my own history to effectively identify the lies I was being told by others: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. I had grown up in a world that never tired of telling me and other Black children like me all of the things that were wrong with us, all of the things we needed to do better. But not enough people spoke about the reason so many Black children grow up in communities saturated with poverty and violence. Not enough people spoke about how these realities were the result of decisions made by people in power and had existed for generations before us. 

After college, when I was doing more reading on my own, I began to understand all that has happened to our communities, to our people, over generations—it was liberating. I had language to name what I felt but had never known how to say. People sometimes believe that if they talk to Black youth about the historical legacy of slavery—and the intergenerational iterations of systemic racism that followed—young people will feel overwhelmed and shut down. But there is enormous value in providing young people with the language, the history, and the framework to identify why their society looks the way it does. Understanding that all of this was done not by accident but by design. That did not strip me of agency, it gave agency back to me. I watched these young people share this history, and I dreamed of what it might mean if we could extend these lessons to every child. How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what has happened here? As a group of younger children was preparing to sing, I continued to watch from my end of the room. A small white woman helped to gather the children and put them in their correct positions, moving with a mix of purpose and freneticism, and then looking on with unfettered pride as they sang to the packed room. 

Kathy Tiernan had a puff of greying brown hair and wore a large pair of frameless glasses. Her eyes tilted down at their edges, giving them an air of empathy and warmth. She wore a long colorful necklace of beads that hung over a faded Juneteenth T-shirt from a previous year’s celebration. Alongside a man named Doug Matthews, she has helped organize the program for a decade now and has seen it evolve from a smattering of disparate, competing events to a more cohesive community celebration. Kathy has been central to ensuring that the next generation of Galvestonians understand the importance of Juneteenth. 

“I’m going to tell you that about four years ago, as I looked around the crowd for this Juneteenth breakfast, I saw a lot of older people were not returning,” she told me later. “And just like our churches, people were dying off, and their three or four friends who brought them weren’t coming back, and I thought, we need to get kids involved. And that’s when I invited Sue Johnson, who is the director of Freedom School and the head of the Nia Cultural Center, to get her college interns involved in telling more about this day in history.” What Kathy loves most is this project of community education. Older kids teaching younger kids. Kids teaching adults, and vice versa. Learning models that break down and break out of our traditional conceptions of what education should look like. 

“For me to see this room filled with people, to watch their faces when the kids are singing, to see them nod when they hear about a piece of history that they maybe hadn’t thought about for a while, or are hearing really for the first time—that’s a real thrill to me. And when people, more people whose story it is, get involved in their own story, things change. Things change for the better all the time. “Not with a group of just Blacks doing this—that doesn’t work. It’s got to be the community involved in this, because that’s what made the change. It didn’t happen isolated. It happened when Blacks worked together and whites worked together and Hispanics worked together. That’s when things work, when we all understand, participate, and care about each other’s story. And that’s what brings me joy.” 

Excerpted from the book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith. Copyright © 2021 by Clint Smith. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.