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Freedom Teaching and the Pedagogy of Juneteenth

Four years ago, most U.S. citizens didn’t know what Juneteenth was. Today, it is a national holiday celebrated across the U.S. to commemorate what many people believe was the end of slavery. 


The historical truth is a bit more complicated. Juneteenth didn’t free anybody, so why do we celebrate it? The answer is complex.


To understand Juneteenth, we must examine how we teach freedom in the U.S. Freedom is usually taught as a singular miraculous moment in history when the burdens of our bondage suddenly fell—think July 4th. This version of history is misleading. Freedom has never been about a moment but an ongoing struggle that continues to this day.


The historical context of American slavery and the long struggle for freedom is evidence of this. The U.S. Constitution’s compromises, like the three-fifths clause and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, exemplified the nation’s attempt to balance the interests of slave and free states. The Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery north of the 36º 30' latitude line in the Louisiana Territory, was a significant yet ultimately ineffective measure. It attempted to manage the growing tensions between North and South but only deepened the divide that led to the Civil War.


The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, was another crucial milestone. It declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” According to the Proclamation:


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.


As some historians have maintained, this Proclamation marked an actual turning point in U.S. history, rendering “all persons held as slaves” living in the rebel territories of the U.S. as free. The Proclamation could only take full effect if two conditions became true: The North had to win the war, and the South had to lose it, which many today debate the extent to which it did.


Slavery persisted in the Union after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued because there was no reasonable way for the federal government to enforce the Proclamation while busy staging the nation’s bloodiest war. For a short while after the fall of the Confederacy, slavery remained legal in two of the Union border states—Delaware and Kentucky—even after Juneteenth.


On June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that the enslaved people there were free. The first paragraph of the brief two-paragraph announcement stated:


The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.


This day, known as Juneteenth, marked a significant moment in the slow march toward freedom. Yet, it didn’t signify the end of slavery across the U.S. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, abolished slavery constitutionally, but even this left a loophole allowing forced labor through incarceration—a loophole that has perpetuated racial injustice to this day.


Juneteenth is not merely a celebration of past emancipation—a brief but key moment in an incomplete march toward a sure destination we are yet to reach—but a reminder of our ongoing struggle for true freedom. If I’m being honest, I’m less interested in celebrating Juneteenth than learning from it. This is the pedagogy of Juneteenth: teaching it not as a historical footnote but as a call to action, a recognition that the promises of freedom remain unfulfilled.


Juneteenth reminds us that any celebration of freedom in the United States is inherently complex. We must acknowledge that we occupy stolen lands and that the ideals of liberty and justice for all are aspirational, often falling short of reality. Juneteenth’s greatest lesson is, thus, that we know, because of our knowledge of the past, we must continue to teach freedom as a goal we yet reach for in the future.


Teaching freedom in this way is about acknowledging the ongoing fight, reminding ourselves that, while we have come a long way, we still have distance to travel. This is the pedagogy of Juneteenth: that as we honor those who fought for freedom, we commit ourselves to their unfinished work of building a society where the freedom dreams of our ancestors are made real.


I teach Juneteenth because it embodies the dream of freedom unfulfilled. We are still freedom dreaming today. And if we hold fast to these dreams, maybe someday, in the immortal words of Roberta Flack and Donnie Hathaway, “we’ll all be free.”





Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.


Berlin, I., Favreau, M., & Miller, S. F. (1992). Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom. The New Press.


Blight, D. W. (2018). Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Simon & Schuster.


Foner, E. (2011). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. W.W. Norton & Company.


Foner, E. (2019). The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. W.W. Norton & Company.


Franklin, J. H., & Higginbotham, E. B. (2011). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (9th ed.). McGraw-Hill.


Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, S. 475, 117th Cong. (2021). Retrieved from,


Litwack, L. F. (1979). Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. Vintage Books.


McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press.


U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (n.d.). The Emancipation Proclamation. Retrieved from,




Suggested citation: Kirkland, D.E. (2024). Freedom Teaching and the Pedagogy of Juneteenth. In forwardED Perspectives


David E. Kirkland, PhD, is the founder and CEO of forwardED. He is a nationally renowned scholar of education equity. He can be reached via email at:



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