For many educators, Juneteenth may not be a familiar holiday. But, like so many American holidays, our recognition of this celebration starts with what we are taught in school.

The current way we teach history in American schools often overlooks the experiences of non-white people. To truly let all students see themselves reflected in their education, we need to reassess how we approach history in the classroom. This year, the best way you can celebrate Juneteenth as an educator is to understand the history behind it. Armed with this knowledge, you can then assess how you are going to build a culturally-relevant environment in the fall, either in person or virtually.

Erasure in American History

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger and Union Army soldiers rolled into Galveston, Texas, to inform the enslaved Black workers they were free. The Civil War was over. While the Emancipation Proclamation passed in January 1863, the people had spent an additional two and a half years as subjugated workers. June 19, or Juneteenth, quickly became the official holiday celebrating Black independence in Texas.

From 1865 to the early 1900s, the celebration expanded beyond the “Friendship” state and into black communities across the country. But, like most of the Reconstruction Era, the Juneteenth celebration faded into obscurity as Black Codes, Jim Crow, and white violence beat thriving Black communities back to the margins, both literally and figuratively. Over 120 years later, Americans are reacquainting ourselves with the holiday and why it fell away from public view.

The Black Renaissance that occurred between 1865 and 1890 is an often overlooked part of US history. Newly freed Blacks used their skills and intellect to build robust, self-sufficient communities. Black-owned businesses increased and Black landowners voted in record numbers of Black representatives into national, state, and local legislatures. Unfortunately, many of these beacons of Black success were actively targeted and destroyed in incidents like the Tulsa Massacre and Rosewood.

Eventually, the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling of 1896 created the legal grounds for “separate but equal” laws that stripped Black people of their rights, relegating them to second-class citizens. While the Civil Rights Movement is a cornerstone of K-12 education, the parts of history that made the movement necessary are often overlooked.

Miseducation of the American Public

As educators, we must acknowledge that the history taught in schools is incomplete. We have to grapple with why the stories of communities of color are relegated to a footnote, and what we are accomplishing by presenting students with whitewashed content. In a country where nearly half the population identifies as non-white, we need to critically reflect on who is at the center of our stories and how that reinforces who is important in our society. How can we tell students of color to value their education when most of their experiences in a school dehumanize and undermine their very existence?

If we want to close the opportunity gap and see every student thrive, we must reflect every student’s history, cultural context, and interests in their learning experiences. In the coming weeks, BetterLesson will release new strategies from our latest Master Teacher Project on Culturally-Responsive Teaching and Learning (CRTL). These instructional resources are designed to help teachers and leaders identify their blindspots and create inclusive learning spaces that address the needs and interests of every student.

While we know many educators are still grappling with the uncertainty of returning to school, developing a culturally-responsive pedagogy will only help student engagement, whether in person or at a distance.