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Happy Juneteenth! Happy Emancipation Day!
This year, 2021, marks the first year that Juneteenth has become a federal holiday, recognizing the freedom that was restored to enslaved Americans on that fateful day of June 16, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.
Several thousand people learned that day that the Union had won and that all slaves were freed, that they would now (in theory) be granted the same rights of person and property as their former masters, “absolute equality” as the General Order #3 had stated.
The implementation of that full equality would leave much to be desired, as forces in the South rose up to keep them from accessing civil rights like serving on juries, using public transportation, and accessing the ballot box, but freedom – ownership of oneself – had been delivered.
Juneteenth pays recognition to the people who were enslaved, to the importance of freedom, and the values of ensuring that everyone has legal equality – equality in personal rights, and equality in rights to property.
That the promise is upheld: “we hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal.”
That all residents and citizens of the United States have access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Juneteenth wouldn’t be possible without the work of Opal Lee, who worked year after year to grow its importance and to keep the history alive. In my state, Pharell Williams attended state press conferences and put his name behind the effort to get it passed into state holiday. By 2020, 47 states had recognized Juneteenth as a day of rememberence.
In June 2021, the Senate and House passed a resolution making Juneteenth a national holiday. Just 14 members of the 535 members of Congress voted against it.
As Juneteenth grows into a second day of independence, a recognition of the freedom and emancipation of Americans who were broken free from slavery and oppression, it becomes important to share these stories with children.
Children will need to know the story of Juneteenth and here are 10 excellent books for children highlighting that celebration, that struggle, that recognition of human values of freedom for all people.
Books about Juneteenth
This book tells the story of the first Juneteenth, that historic day on June 19, 1865 when the enslaved people in the fields found out the good news that they were freed (and had been, months earlier). Angela Johnson’s poetry shines through in the book, and is beautifully paired with E.B. Lewis’s joyous images of celebration, of summer heat, and new beginnings in the Texas cotton fields.
This book is perfect for preschoolers and children older, introducing the topic of slavery in American history in a way that is accessible for young readers.
Juneteenth for Mazie is a book about today, about celebrating freedom in the United States. Mazie wakes up excited to celebrate the freeing of her ancestors, and everybody is out celebrating too. This is a fiction book to read for Juneteenth that shows the excitement of the holiday.
This book by Valerie Wesley, published in 1997, is about a past Juneteenth celebration. The setting is in 1943 Texas, where cousins come together to celebrate.
One cousin, who lives in the North (family moved there during the Great Migration) is surprised by the rules of 1943 Texas, where water fountains are segregated. The other cousin becomes saddened, having thought that this was the way it was everywhere. In the final act, grandma comes to tell both cousins the story of their family history – of Juneteenth – to show where the family came from. A reflection of progress: past, present, and future.
The author, Opal Lee, has been a leader in the holding of Juneteenth celebrations for decades. She recognized the historical significance and planned celebrations for her town in Texas, year after year. Now, she shares what she knows in this touching children’s book.
Great for 8 to 11 year olds, this is a book where you choose your own pathway through the story. While picture books can get the story started on Juneteenth, this book allows elementary school students the ability to read for themselves what life was like in the early days after the Civil War ended, as the economic system was upturned by the news of Lee’s surrender.
The Union had won, slavery was over, but what did it mean for the people most affected? This Interactive History Adventure tells their story.
A newly published children’s book, this shows the modern celebration of Juneteenth and discusses the gap from between when the Emancipation Proclamation was released in 1863 (which mostly affected Union-held areas of the South), to when it would take effect on the population of Galveston, Texas.
Well-illustrated book for young readers about the significance of Juneteenth. Available on audiobook as well.
The main character is a child who has just arrived to Texas, having moved from a different state. She is surprised by the level of celebration going on for Juneteenth – the barbecue, the music, the excitement – and wants to learn why is everyone celebrating. From there, she learns the history and significance of Juneteenth.
This non-fiction book, showing modern celebrations of Juneteeth, may be hard to find and seems out-of-print.
Days of Jubilee is a reference to liberation, as Jubilee Day was what a person’s individual freedom day was called. Juneteenth, of course, was the final ‘Day of Jubilee’, the end of announcing the abolition of slavery.
Want to Learn More than the Juneteenth Story? History on this issue was more than one day.
Books about not Juneteenth: Wanting to Expand the Story
This story takes place in Jacksonville, Florida, in the year 1900. Two brothers want to write a song on the anniversary of President Lincoln’s birthday (what we now call President’s Day). They wrote an anthem that holds meaning to this day.
This book would be perfect for an art classroom – with its talk of colors and its line drawings and attention to bright colors. The book discusses Blackness, Black achievement,culture, history, diversity. It is a recognition of Black Excellence.
Celebrating all of the colors of the rainbow, author Angela Joy highlights that Black is beautiful. The poetry inside the book takes the reader on a journey through African American history, making stops along the way to the March on Washington in 1963, and the swearing in of Thurgood Marshall (lawyer of Brown v. Board of Education) as the first Black person to hold the honor of becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
This book is set in Louisiana, in the streets of New Orleans, just a few years before Juneteenth.
Perfect for students as young as Kindergarten (and preschool students, too) – this book discusses the days of the week, and how slavery owned all of the days of the week for enslaved persons, except for a tiny slice of freedom on Sunday afternoons. On their half-day off from work (“half-day, half-free”), enslaved persons would meet up at Congo Square, where jazz music would play, dancing would commence, and fun would be had. It’s a story of finding joy in an oppressive situation.
The book fully discusses the hardships of slavery, though the poetry and illustrations keep it upbeat in tone. As the story goes through the week, there are lashings done. But the focus is on the resilience, the eye on the prize, on doing lots with the little you’ve got. This book would pair well with Juneteenth readings because it highlights the living conditions during slavery, and the avenues for Black joy that were possible, in very regulated means, in Louisiana in the 1850s.
What is Juneteenth? Why is it important?
Juneteenth – June 19, 1865, the day when the last people held captive in slavery discovered their freedom in the United States.
Juneteenth is now recognized in 47 states.
The first Juneteenth celebrations took place in 1866, a year after the announcement, and was also called “Freedom Day.”
It marked the historic day (video) when General Granger read out the announcement at a hotel in Galveston, Texas that all slaves were freed. This announcement affected the last 250,000 enslaved people in Texas – giving them legal rights over themselves, their property, and establishing them as workers with employers, no longer in a slave/owner legal standing.
This day largely marked the abolishment of slavery within the United States. (Note: In the 13th Amendment, slavery is still legal for people incarcerated by the government.)
The holiday of Juneteenth has been called “Black Independence Day,” with many references to how it is similar to the Fourth of July, as both are summer holidays celebrating independence. This video, of Frederick Douglass’s speech commemorating the 4th of July, explains viscerally the need for another day. While July 4, 1776 was an important day in American independence, not all Americans gained their access to independence until June 19, 1865.
You cannot celebrate freedom when you yourself are not yet free. Juneteenth is a celebration of the national abolition of slavery inside the United States.
Juneteenth Books for Adults
Good for anyone comfortable reading The Great Gatsby, this is the story of a man growing up in Oklahoma under the care of his adopted dad, a preacher. The book is excellent at giving sensory details that make you feel the story, and leaving you with an allegory. This book, by the author of The Invisible Man, is Ralph Ellison’s posthumous work.
It has been declared a ‘Great American Novel.’
Want to learn more about the contributions of enslaved Americans in the United States?
Books around the Globe has found quality children’s stories from people in the following states, showing Americans and their contributions:
How will you celebrate Juneteenth? Have any good children’s books about Juneteenth ready for the special day?