Juneteenth: Remembering Our Roots

To celebrate Juneteenth, the AFT Retirees Legacy Initiative held a panel on June 17 that featured a discussion about the history and meaning behind the day on which enslaved people learned they were free. The discussion was on the same day that President Joe Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Retiree panel on Juneteenth

The panel included Derryn Moten, professor of history and chair of the History and Political Science Department at Alabama State University; Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers; and Marcia Howard, a member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. The panel was moderated by AFT’s Human Rights and Community Relations Department director, Regena Thomas.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram took a moment to thank the retirees for all they have done. He recalled the words of poet Langston Hughes who said, “I, too, sing America.”

 “That’s what Juneteenth means to me,” Ingram said. He also gave a shoutout to Raphael Bonhomme, a Washington Teachers’ Union member who teaches the lessons of Juneteenth to his third-graders every year.

Moten spoke about the impact of Juneteenth and the questions the day raises about freedom and citizenship. “When the former slaves heard the news, they laid down their work tools, and they left the farms that they labored on.” Even so, when they were no longer enslaved, the citizenship of Blacks came into question with the Dred Scott case, said Moten. Blacks were not protected with citizenship under the Constitution until the 14th Amendment was ratified.

Jackie Anderson, a retiree leader in Texas, shared some of her experiences growing up in the state. Her parents protected her and her siblings from the hurts of racism. “In my home, Juneteenth was always a celebration,” she said. “I’m grateful that we were told the importance of Juneteenth—it’s not just a day to barbecue and have a good time; this was the day that slaves were actually freed. Now, I feel compelled to teach my grandchildren about the things that are important to us as Black Americans today.”

Even though we can celebrate Juneteenth nationally, Anderson is reminded that legislators are trying to ban critical race theory: “If we don’t teach our grandchildren, how will they ever know what Juneteenth really is?”

Marcia Howard is a teacher and activist at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. “We are trying to dismantle the systemic oppression in Black and brown communities,” said Howard. She noted that when thinking about Juneteenth, it’s important to remember that people in power still exploited those without power by continuing to hold them in bondage. “Right now, the truth is our greatest currency. I want you all to focus on the truth. We are the vanguard,” said Howard. “If we are not framing the conversations and debates about critical race theory through the lens of honest historical fact, then the truth will be lost.” 

 [Adrienne Coles]