Happy Teenth!

How (& Why) To Explain Juneteenth To Your Kids

You can — and should! — paint a complete picture, but don’t forget to honor the joy, hope, and freedom the day represents.

by Arielle Tschinkel and Team Scary Mommy
A woman reading a book to two children in a cozy, colorful room decorated with artistic elements.
Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

When it comes to celebrating Black liberation, few milestones are as important as Juneteenth, which marked the formal end of slavery in the United States. Despite occurring on June 19, 1865, it took until 2021 for Juneteenth to receive recognition as a federal holiday, which means widespread acknowledgment of this momentous day is far overdue.

So, how can you explain Juneteenth to your kids in a way that will make sense to them, particularly if they’re not quite old enough to understand the deep-seated horrors inflicted upon Black Americans for decades? It’s not only possible, but it’s essential, especially as lawmakers in several states continue their crusade against honest and inclusive discussions about race in schools across the country.

What is Juneteenth?

Though President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law on Jan. 1, 1863, it took two and a half years for all enslaved African Americans to be freed. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single enslaved person since the executive order signed by Lincoln only applied to states that had succeeded from the Union, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, sections of Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and sections of Virginia — all Confederate states. Lincoln did not apply the order to Union states (namely, those in the North) to prevent them from rebelling and joining the Confederacy. Yet another f*cked-up layer to the racist practice of white people in power using Black lives as a bargaining chip to preserve white supremacy.

Still, the Emancipation Proclamation did mark a turning point in the fight against slavery, as Black Americans continued to fight for liberation across the country. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to free the remaining 250,000 enslaved Americans by force.

The 13th Amendment, which Lincoln had issued for approval in Congress on Feb. 1 of that year, was officially ratified by the majority of states on Dec. 6, 1865, making slavery illegal in the United States Constitution and abolishing slavery nationwide once and for all.

But it’s Juneteenth — a portmanteau of June and nineteenth — that symbolizes Independence Day for Black Americans, who first celebrated the occasion a year later, in 1866, and have marked the historic occasion every year since. According to the Texas State Historical Association, early celebrations included newly-freed Black Americans helping each other learn about their voting rights, along with social gatherings including picnics, pageants, parades, barbecues, ball games, cookouts, church services, rodeos, and horseback riding.

Despite decades of activists fighting for Juneteenth to be named a national holiday, it wasn’t until President Joe Biden signed into law a bill signifying Juneteenth National Independence Day in 2021, over a year after the murder of George Floyd sparked global protests against racism in the United States.

How can you explain Juneteenth to your kids?

For younger kids, it’s great to note that before computers and smartphones, information did not travel at a high speed. So, a physical copy of the Emancipation Proclamation had to travel from place to place. It was read aloud at each stop, freeing enslaved people along the way, until finally making it to Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after being issued by President Lincoln.

Janice Robinson-Celeste, an early childhood specialist, parent educator, and publisher and CEO of Successful Black Parenting, suggests starting the conversation by asking your child what they know about Juneteenth and going from there. “Leave out the details of the atrocities and keep the explanation simple,” she tells Scary Mommy.

To do this, Robinson-Celeste encourages you to:

  • “Explain the meaning of the word ‘freedom.’”
  • “Highlight some of the freedoms your child enjoys at home and school.”
  • “Foster empathy by asking, ‘How would you feel if you couldn’t play with your friends or do the things you love?’”

Need a bit more of a script?

Try this, says Robinson-Celeste: “There was a time when people in our country were not free to travel, buy things, get paid for their work, or even stay with their families. These people were ‘enslaved.’ In 1865, they finally learned they were free, and today we celebrate that with a big party and parades. Juneteenth is a happy day where we remember and celebrate that everyone should be treated fairly and have the same freedoms. We celebrate with music, food, and stories.”

Activities are also an excellent way to help your child understand and appreciate Juneteenth.

“Say to your child, ‘Let’s draw a picture of what freedom looks like to you. Maybe it’s playing at the park, reading books, or being with family. That’s what Juneteenth celebrates — everyone’s right to enjoy life and be happy,’” says Robinson-Celeste, adding, “Another nice way to celebrate Juneteenth is by attending local events or making a celebratory banner with your children to hang in your home to honor freedom.”

How do you explain slavery if your child has follow-up questions?

For Black families, Robinson-Celeste says, “One of the most important ways families can celebrate Juneteenth is by parents sharing the history of our emancipation accurately and in an age-appropriate manner.”

Though it might not be age-appropriate to discuss the specific injustices experienced by enslaved Black people, children do need to learn about the struggles of those who have come before them.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) recommends rooting young children in the concept of history in general. A solid starting point: “History is everything that has already happened, like breakfast this morning or even longer ago. Slavery in America happened before either of us were born and even before your grandparents were born.”

The NMAAHC notes that children can begin to understand the implications of slavery by age 6, but they advise against the first conversations about Black American history focusing solely on Black trauma. It’s equally important to honor Black culture, Black joy, and the strength and resilience born out of necessity to survive, all of which persist in the present day.

Instead of overloading your child with a lot of information all at once, inviting conversation here and there can help them process such a critical part of American history.

Put simply, you can explain that slavery was when one person “owned” another person, an unjust practice put in place by European settlers, who forced Africans into indentured servitude against their will, moving them away from their families and their homeland to the newly colonized United States. Millions of Black Americans remained enslaved for centuries, until the final enslaved people were freed in 1865.

Distilling it down into right versus wrong will help kids understand that slavery was never OK, and that Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom for enslaved folks and the generations that have come since. Freedom means the ability to express your thoughts and beliefs, as well as to pursue what makes you feel happy and safe. Remind your child that it is just as crucial to fight for the freedom of all people now as it was then, especially since not all people are treated equally today.

Three questions you can ask your child, per the NMAAHC:

  • What do you think about this?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What questions do you have?

Tweens and teens should be able to understand the history in its totality, which means painting a complete and accurate picture is essential. You can then discuss the ways that racial injustice persists today, with states enforcing racist policies and laws at various points throughout history, practices that still oppress Black Americans and prevent them from accessing everything from healthcare to education, housing, and so much more.

Whitewashing history means we can never learn from it, but Juneteenth represents hope, freedom, and the prospect of a brighter future for Black Americans. Discussing it with your kids will help them understand both how far we’ve come and how much work we desperately need to do to protect and support our Black neighbors and friends.