a family socializes around a barbeque grill

Juneteenth and the Role of the Educator

06/18/2021

Written by LaKimbre Brown, Laura Meili, Chong-Hao Fu, & Bethany Criss

Juneteenth and the Role of the Educator

Reflections on the newest Federal holiday

Black communities have celebrated Juneteenth Day since 1866. This observance commemorates the end of legal slavery in the United States two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. To many, it serves as a time for reflection, celebrating achievement, and sharing in Black joy.

Opal Lee
Photo courtesy of Opal Lee, as printed in Variety.

Yesterday, President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday – the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This came about largely because of the decades-long advocacy of Opal Lee, an educator from Texas who notably walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. in 2016 at age 89 to bring national attention to her cause. 

As the leadership team of Leading Educators, we see this milestone as an important call for reflection on our values and how we give students access to lessons from the past. Below, we share some of our own reflections to initiate conversation and invite your own reflections on this important moment in history.

children have a right to learn their history

LaKimbre Brown, Chief of Networks

“The first time I heard about Juneteenth I was in college. I remember this feeling of embarrassment and shame as I thought, ‘Why was this never taught to me?’

I spent dozens of years sitting in classrooms learning about the same holidays, celebrations, and accomplishments of so many others, but rarely was any time spent sharing the greatness of people with whom I personally could identify.

I was a dutiful student. I followed all the rules. I did all my homework, even the extra credit. The older I got and the more I saw about what hadn’t been taught regarding the contributions, triumphs, and trials of my ancestors, I wondered if school had given as much to me as I had given to it. I am grateful to work for an organization that firmly believes that type of education is not okay.”

Students want education about the world and its differences

Laura Meili, Chief Impact Officer

“Like most students around our country (and maybe many of you), I didn’t learn about Juneteenth in school. Instead, I learned the same sanitized history that classrooms have offered for decades.

When I started teaching, our team of middle school teachers worked together to co-plan units to begin to disrupt the stories we shared. We worked to bring different stories to our students: stories of truth, beauty, pain, violence, resilience, and joy. Stories that centered people who shared their identities and others that helped them learn from others’ experiences.

I believe students and adults alike deserve learning opportunities that help us see ourselves more clearly and also to learn from others, and I believe in the power of our work at Leading Educators to create schools where this belief becomes practice. What an awesome privilege and responsibility we all have to help create the classrooms of our dreams for every student, every day.”

Evidence proves students benefit from education about the world and its differences

Chong-Hao Fu, Chief Executive Officer

“Juneteenth was part of our local Houston history since it commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation making its way to Galveston – just 40 miles from here. In high school, I remember our discussion on Juneteenth focusing on why it took two and a half years for the Emancipation Proclamation to make its way to Texas. Our school’s explanation: messages by horseback just took longer back then. Not discussed in our history class: Southern resistance to Emancipation, white racism, how a country could enslave its own people for hundreds of years, or…why our own high school continued to track students largely along lines of race.

We were taught a white-washed history and an incomplete understanding of our present day circumstances. When I think about the teaching of Juneteenth now – particularly with the attacks on racial equity work within schools – I think about ensuring the next generation has less unlearning to do than we did; I think about empowering our students with the truth of our shared legacy.”

Education is about truth

Bethany Criss, Chief External Relations Officer

“There are mixed feelings about this holiday. Some people are livid. They say that federal recognition of Juneteenth isn’t a priority. That the real priority is countering voter suppression. Yes, true democracy means equal access to the ballot, but a key step toward securing that access is education.

When society devolves to the point that fundamental truths are deemed political posturing, educators must course correct. When people lose hold of the truths of history, culture, and humanity, they lose hold of democracy. Thursday, our federal government took a major step toward thwarting the asinine efforts of some states to stop educators from teaching truth. Let’s not forget, education is at the heart of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson, who himself enslaved more than 600 people over the course of his life, said, ‘An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.’ Codifying Juneteenth as a federal holiday, leads to codifying Juneteenth into lesson plans, leads to codifying teaching for equity and truth, which leads to a better democracy. Federal recognition of Juneteenth helps to keep classrooms open for educators to continue teaching for equity.”

Our promise to You

No matter what challenges lie ahead, we will be persistent in our mission to support teachers to develop student agency, to understand the social and political contexts of our country, and to teach the truth. Education that teaches kids about the world around them prepares them to be future leaders, creators, and innovators. Thank you for being the spark that ignites this most important potential.

Read more about Ms. Opal Lee’s fight to honor history and educate the future: