Opening Article for Teaching Juneteenth 

I would recommend lecturing from this article or providing it for students to read before you meet for discussion. It gives a broad overview of what Juneteenth is as a holiday, its historical context, and what you can typically expect at a celebration. 

Cultural Activity #1: The Black National Anthem 

While Juneteenth often coincides with the end of the school year on June 19th, celebrating the holiday can take place anytime during the month as its imprecise date is indicative of how enslaved Texans learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Most Juneteenth celebrations involve singing what is now known as the black national anthem or “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” written by NAACP president and composer James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson at the turn of the twentieth century.

First, have students read the lyrics, analyze its meaning verse by verse in the context of Jim Crow America.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Afterward, you can watch and analyze Beyonce’s performance in her Netflix “Homecoming” special (2018). Discuss the use of black sorority, fraternity, and university marching bands. What is the significance? How does this relate to Reconstruction or conceptions of freedom?

Activity #2: Reading and Analyzing the Emancipation Proclamation 

Here is the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation. Have students read and analyze the first passage. Who was included in the proclamation? Who was not included? When did it go into effect? What does that mean for Juneteenth? How did Abraham Lincoln imagine the territory and political power of the United States vs. the Confederacy in this order?


“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

–Abraham Lincoln

Additional Activity Ideas 

  • Have students pick their favorite song by a black artist and create a Juneteenth playlist for their home celebrations
  • Listen to or analyze traditional spirituals or gospel songs by music groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers
  • Hold an art competition celebrating black innovation
  • Recite famous speeches by black intellectuals like Frederick Douglass or Barack Obama
  • Look into other celebrations like Emancipation Day (January 1) or Decoration Day (Memorial Day) and debate how or why recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday instead of a regional holiday in Texas is significant or important in this moment of time
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).