In Jefferson Square Park on Friday, Marion C. Moore High School graduate Fateemah Muhammad was helping with preparations for a student march to celebrate Juneteenth. She was writing names of Black people killed at the hands of police on a large black coffin to be carried throughout the march.
Muhammad, who is Black, says she’s celebrating Juneteenth for the very first time this year. She never learned about it in school. Like many other Americans, Muhammad learned about the holiday this week, as the celebration gained renewed attention amid nationwide protests over racial injustice.
Juneteenth commemorates the day of June 19, 1865, when American troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and finally told the enslaved people there that they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
But this is not an event that’s taught in many U.S. classrooms, including in JCPS, according to students and graduates. Muhammad is part of a group of young people advocating for a more inclusive curriculum — one that’s not focused on the histories of White men.
“The only thing I know about my history, my past, is slavery. And slavery is a disruption of my history. It’s not who I am,” Muhammad said. Muhammad said she wanted a deeper dive into African history, for example.
Another JCPS student, Angel Thomas, who is Black and was also celebrating Juneteenth in the square, agreed. She said the only time she saw Black people in the curriculum at her predominately White middle school was during Black History Month.
“When February came around they put posters up,” she said. “As soon as it ended, then they started taking the posters down.”
Now Thomas is at Central High School, a historically Black school, where she said there is a bigger emphasis on the Black experience.
Sitting in the shade, Ballard High School Class of 2019 graduate Kenna Mink (pictured above) said she never learned about Juneteenth during her time in JCPS, and that any Black history was limited to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
“It would just repeat itself, and be the same thing each year,” she said. “It’s like, OK, what’s next? Like this can’t be it.”
JCPS officials are trying to build a more inclusive curriculum at the district level. As part of that effort, next school year will be the first time Juneteenth will be included in the district’s curriculum documents. Guiding questions on Juneteenth have been included in 5th grade and 8th grade social studies curriculum, and in a new elective high school course called “Developing Black Historical Consciousness.”
JCPS social studies instructional lead Ryan New said the questions were added to curriculum documents this past winter, as part of ongoing updates based on state academic standards for social studies, as well as the district’s racial equity plan.
New said the district is “trying to think and redesign curriculum that’s going to be much more representative of our students.”
JCPS’ student population is about 35% Black.
JCPS designs its curriculum based around questions that guide discussion, readings and assignments. One offered in 5th grade is:
“Why do we celebrate the 4th of July or Juneteenth?”
In 8th grade, the question is offered:
“How do African Americans view Juneteenth versus the 13th amendment?”
Just because a question is part of the district’s curriculum doesn’t mean every teacher will use it. Curriculum decisions are left up to each school’s School-Based Decision Making Council (SBDM). And even if pieces of this curriculum are included by the SBDM, there is no guarantee a teacher will teach that particular question.
“It’s really up to the individual teacher as the gatekeeper to decide what it is that they talk about,” New said.
“Many, specifically, White teachers, are more hesitant about talking about race,” he said.
New said many White teachers do not feel equipped with the language and skills to discuss race in the classroom. They worry about saying the wrong thing, or getting push-back from parents, so they avoid it, and keep teaching the Euro-centric curriculum they are comfortable with.
The district has tried to help by offering training, but can’t mandate it.
Whether or not individual schools include the lessons on Juneteenth, students like Fateemah Muhammad say they plan to celebrate Juneteenth every year.
“It’s part of my history; it’s my Independence Day.”