Although it is the oldest known celebration of the abolition of slavery in the United States, Juneteenth was only officially declared a national holiday in June 2021. As such, many of us may still have a lot to learn about the origins of Juneteenth, its significance, and how to celebrate this important day. Children's literature, of course, is always a great way to learn more about any topic of interest, whether inside or outside the classroom.
In this blog post, we'll take a look at some of the children's books about Juneteenth in our collection. We'll also discuss some resources for teaching about Juneteenth, and how to share books at home and in the classroom. While yes, school will soon be out for summer here in Nashville, there is no reason to put reading and learning aside, especially about something so important.
The Origins of Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a combination of June and 19, referring specifically to June 19, 1865, when the Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas to formally announce the end of the U.S. Civil War. While in Texas, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, officially proclaiming that enslavement was no longer the law of the land.
Black families thereafter would gather annually on 'Emancipation Day' to celebrate and provide community support. As formerly enslaved persons and their descendants left Texas to settle throughout the United States, Juneteenth commemorations spread to other cities and states.
The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States is a nonfiction picture book account of this history, written in accessible and engaging language perfect for children in elementary school. In an afterword entitled "My Juneteenth Connection," author Alliah L. Agostini shares her own story of celebrating Juneteenth growing up in Buffalo, New York.
Although Juneteenth commemorations were instituted in farther flung areas of the United States such as San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, by the 1940s celebrations were no longer as widespread. But there were still people who held fiercely to Juneteenth, and who advocated for its official recognition as a public holiday for all U.S. Americans.
The lyrical picture book biography Opal Lee and What It Means to be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth is a look at the life of Opal Lee, a teacher, "story keeper," and activist known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth." In 2016, at the age of 89, Opal Lee began a walking campaign from her home in Forth Worth, Texas all the way to Washington, D.C. to bring national attention to Juneteenth and to encourage lawmakers to declare it an official holiday. Opal Lee lived to see her dream realized in 2021, and at 94 years old, is still walking for freedom.
The Legacy of Juneteenth
The history of Juneteenth—the two and a half years it took for the news that slavery had been abolished in the Confederacy to reach Texas, and the long campaign to make it a national holiday—reminds us that as Opal Lee says, "none of us are free until we're all free." Juneteenth continues to inspire teachers, community leaders, and artists to tell the truth about U.S. history and to continue to advocate for freedom and equality.
Written by Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, Build A House is taken from a song released by Giddens in June 2020 to honor the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. Paired with moving illustrations by Monica Mikai, the almost stark lyrics tell a truthful yet hopeful story about not only surviving, but thriving. A music video of the song with illustrations from the book is available on YouTube, and there is also a Teachers' Guide for grades 2 to 5 on the publisher's website.
All Nashville Public Library locations will be closed on Juneteenth, but there are plenty of ways to celebrate in Nashville. There is the Black on Buchanan Juneteenth Block Party, Music City Freedom Fest at Hadley Park (right next to our Hadley Park Branch!), and the Juneteenth615 Celebration at Fort Negley Park.
It is vital that we not only celebrate, but also teach the beautiful tradition of Black freedom. Any of the books highlighted in this blog post can be used in the classroom or shared at home. The National Museum of African American History & Culture has a wealth of Juneteenth resources online, including an early childhood teaching guide.
Learning and Teaching About Juneteenth Using Children's Literature
For more children's books about Juneteenth, check out the scroller above. Some of these titles have been featured in this blog before, while others have just been added to the collection! Even if you have been celebrating Juneteenth for many years, you are guaranteed to find a new-to-you book on the list.