‘What does it mean to be freed?': How parents are teaching their children about Juneteenth

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"What does it mean to be freed?" one child asked a parent.

"Were people really that mean?" a mother recalled her children saying.

Amid the parades, pageants, carnivals and cookouts for Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in America, many children are asking profound questions about the nation's history of enslaving Black people.

Because of its newfound status as a federal holiday, many parents say it is an ideal time to teach children about Juneteenth, though finding the right wording can be difficult.

Mia Bynum, senior director for science, equity, diversity and inclusion at the American Psychological Association, said families can explore calm, age-appropriate conversations about this history. For younger children, that talk might involve introducing educational materials. Older children, she said, are able to handle nuanced conversations with more details.

“Sometimes what parents will do is that they'll hear kids make those observations (around race) and ask innocent questions, and then they'll try to shut down that discussion,” said Bynum, a clinical psychologist focusing on interaction and communication in the Black family.

Bynum said the best approach is to move forward. If it's an innocent question, go toward it.

"Be patient, pull back the layers,” she added.

“If you get to the end of your knowledge, be honest about that and say, ‘I've got a little bit more to learn about this. Why don't we do it together as a family?’”

Kids have fun running around a Juneteenth celebration Friday.
Kids have fun running around a Juneteenth celebration Friday.

Another reason Bynum recommends that parents do not shy away from Juneteenth conversations: Children can begin to perceive race as early as age 2, she said, so learning about groups that have been historically oppressed can be a psychological armor for coping with racism, while improving a child's self-confidence because they know the truth.

Juneteenth represents when enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, learned via the Union Army slavery had been abolished in 1865, more than two years earlier.

The USA TODAY Network spoke with four families on how they are teaching the history and traditions behind the holiday — the red velvet cake, Miss Juneteenth pageants and parades — and preparing for deeper conversations.

Here are their stories.

Juneteenth more than a holiday for this Indianapolis family

Jaeda Webb, 14, remembers the confusion classmates and teachers had when she wore a Juneteenth shirt for Culture Day at her Indianapolis school.

“Nobody really knows about Juneteenth,” she said. “So, I had to break it down. Like this is my culture and why I’m wearing this shirt.”

Her brother, Priest Webb, 15, said the mention of Juneteenth in his school history textbook is about one paragraph, and teachers scantly mention the topic.

But what they lack in Juneteenth education at school, they make up for it at home.

Their father, James Webb, helped organize the Indy Juneteenth celebration after seeing the ubiquity of “Kiss Me, I’m Irish" shirts on St. Patrick’s Day in 2016 and realizing not many people knew much about Juneteenth.

“I said, ‘I'm going to start teaching people about our Independence Day,’” said James Webb, 39, a history major in college.

“And people thought I was making up the word."

The Webb family at a Miss Juneteenth pageant. From left to right: Priest, Jada Twjonia, James and Lyric.
The Webb family at a Miss Juneteenth pageant. From left to right: Priest, Jada Twjonia, James and Lyric.

Today, Indy Juneteenth has a pageant, a large, carnival-like celebration and other events. But even with the celebration, James and Twjonia Webb don’t want their children, or anyone else, to miss the point of the holiday: the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas.

“You have to know what you’re celebrating,” Twjonia Webb, 40, said.

The Webb parents want to ensure that the barbecues and other hallmarks of the holiday are ramps to teaching their children and others about Black history in America. James Webb is clear that Black people don't come from bondage, emphasizing their lives in Africa before slavery. For Juneteenth, he points out elements of everyday life, such as the hibiscus flower, which is used to make red drinks during the holiday.

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The lessons are taking hold. Lyric Webb, 6, recognizes that Juneteenth makes her "happy."

This year, Jaeda Webb said more of her friends plan to attend Juneteenth festivities.

“Hopefully, Juneteenth can open the door, to bring forth some sort of healing for the entire nation,” James Webb said. “So those conversations can be had, and more understanding of African American perspectives can be understood.”

'We talk about everything'

For Britteny Powell, teaching her three children – 5, 10, and 16 – about Juneteenth is part of an immersive conversation around race.

“We talk about everything,” said Powell, a resident of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. “There's nothing that I don't discuss with them.”

Much of that lesson includes understanding the history of Black people, starting from their lives in Africa and continuing through enslavement and subsequent achievements, which include overcoming institutional obstacles.

Lodged in between that river of liberation, she said, is Juneteenth, its celebration and the questions.

“Was slavery that bad?”

An educator herself, Powell tells her children yes.

“Yes, slavery was exactly what it was.”

She tells them many Americans of the time period followed a value system, and people that looked like her often started life and continued it from bondage.

Powell said monitors how her children react to history. She doesn't want its heartaches to force them to carry bitterness.

“You have to be able to come and make it make sense," she said. “And so we go through the different areas of slavery. We go through the different areas of the North and the South and how they interacted ... everything as a whole."

Through the Illinois Juneteenth Committee, Powell's three children learn even more by being part of a parade commemorating the holiday and helping at other events. While doing that, she said, they realize the joy of their parents and community in celebrating the culture.

“They're like, ‘I want to see what it is that has you so excited,’” Powell said. “‘I want to see what it is that makes you so willing to be who you are.’”

Miss Juneteenth pageant hits home with daughter

Resha Woods-Sutherlin, 30, watched as the face of her then-7-year-old daughter, Samaya, moved from shock to tears when she learned more about the enslavement of Black people.

“Samaya was very taken aback because she just couldn't believe that once upon a time, this is what it used to be,” she said. “It was a lot for her to take on.”

But when Woods-Sutherlin, who also has a 2-year-old son, explained that she had just entered a Miss Juneteenth pageant in Indianapolis, her daughter's outlook toward history changed.

“'Oh, that is going to be so much fun,'" Woods-Sutherlin said, recalling her daughter's excitement on hearing about the pageant. “She wanted to learn more about this history.”

Woods-Sutherlin, who won the pageant and served as Miss Juneteenth, said the holiday became a way to have deeper discussions about racism, while mixing in the pageant and other celebrations.

“I was wanting to let her see there was nothing that you can’t put your mind to," Woods-Sutherlin said, "and because of who we are and where we came from, you can become something greater."

Samaya listened as her mother practiced pageant speeches and watched her spread the word of Juneteenth to community groups. The young girl then asked her own questions about the history, as well as and the racial justice protests that followed George Floyd's death in 2020 — subjects that often left Woods-Sutherlin seeking educational materials to further her daughter's understanding.

Equipped with new knowledge, Samaya’s confidence grew, her mother said. She became more assertive and took on new hobbies such as taekwondo.

Although Woods-Sutherlin's time as Miss Juneteenth has ended, she is proud of how she passed the knowledge of Juneteenth to her community.

And her daughter.

“I passed the crown to her because I want her to know that she's the queen,” Woods-Sutherlin said. “There's a queen rising within her as well.”

Learning to celebrate Juneteenth with a teenager

When Julia Fusco-Luberoff's 15-year-old son learned this year that it took two years for some enslaved Black people in Texas find out about the Emancipation Proclamation, the New Jersey teenager was appalled.

"'How can we let this happen?'" his mother, Fusco-Luberoff, who is of Syrian and Italian heritage, recalled her son saying.

Then, Fusco-Luberoff said, her son didn’t understand why Juneteenth was a celebration, believing it would be a sad affair because the freedom of enslaved people took so long.

Slavery was cruel, Fusco-Luberoff explained, but the idea of being free deserved jubilation.

Fusco-Luberoff was surprised her son didn’t know more about the subject. He was into politics and had dyed his hair rainbow colors in protest of the Trump administration's attacks against the LGBTQ community. But he didn’t know about Juneteenth in part, she realized, because it wasn’t taught in school.

And her knowledge of the holiday was limited.

Fusco-Luberoff, a former teacher, didn’t teach Juneteenth when she taught in Brooklyn, New York. And when she asked another teacher friend, that person admitted she didn’t teach Juneteenth in her class either.

Perceiving her son’s interest in learning about history, Fusco-Luberoff sought out educational material on YouTube and documentaries.

“He's still learning,” Fusco-Luberoff, a leader in women’s marches in New York, said of her son. “There's a lot to learn about. It's not something I can teach him in one hour.”

This year, she wants to take her son to a local Juneteenth festival, hoping to expand his knowledge of slavery and Juneteenth. She wants him to see what this federal holiday, the latest chapter in the African diaspora, means to people.

Said Fusco-Luberoff: “We want to be a part of celebrating freedom and celebrating liberation.”

Tiffany Cusaac-Smith covers race and history for the USA TODAY. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @T_Cusaac.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How parents are teaching kids about Juneteenth, slavery in America