Moab Republic via shutterstock
The Texas African American History Memorial is an outdoor monument commemorating the impact of African Americans installed on the State Capitol grounds (Moab Republic via shutterstock)

After weeks of upheaval and unrest in the interest of racial justice, on Friday, Americans will commemorate Juneteenth, the day news of emancipation reached the final enslaved Americans. It is a day of celebration mixed with sadness.

It is also a day that prior to 2020, many Americans never heard of.

Ruth Kelley of Portland was working at her town’s parks and recreation office last year when a woman came in to reserve a picnic area on June 19, for a Juneteenth celebration. Kelley, who then was at UConn studying to be a teacher, confessed that she had never heard of the holiday, but was eager to learn more.

“I remember going home and looking more into it,” Kelley said. “I think it is great that people are starting to realize it is a holiday and learn more about it.”

The lack of information about Juneteenth is not limited to white students like Kelley. Jailynn Caraballo, an Afro Latinx student at Quinnipiac University, said she heard about Juneteenth when she was a freshman in college.

“I think it is important for students to be taught about Juneteenth and other race-related content because education is the first step to stopping racism and microaggressions,” Caraballo, who is a rising senior, said. “Students who are not taught legitimate history and do not know about other races and ethnicities are far more likely to commit an act of violence against a peer.”

Large, structural changes are coming to Connecticut’s curriculum to begin to address this deficit. Last year, the legislature passed a bill requiring African American and Latino studies to be taught at public schools by 2022. Don Harris, chairman of the Bloomfield Board of Education and a member of the State Board of Education, is on the task force developing this new curriculum.

“It is a part of our history that has been ignored,” Harris said. “I came through the Hartford and Bloomfield school systems and never received anything. I knew we were slaves and slavery was supposed to be over, but there were many accomplishments that occurred with African Americans that were never talked about.”

Harris hopes the curriculum will be rolled out in schools across the state by fall 2021.

Elena Sada, assistant professor of education, bilingual and multicultural education at Eastern Connecticut State University said the lack of focus on historical moments such as Juneteenth could be a symptom of Connecticut’s race to be the best in science, technology, engineering and math curriculum (STEM).

“If that’s our priority, that’s at the top of our hierarchy of values, there will be no room for curriculum that spends time fostering true humanism,” Sada said.

Sean Ring teaches U.S. history and civics at Connecticut River Academy in East Hartford. He said the introduction of the new curriculum detailing African American and Latino history is a good starting point, but he believes that the study of American history needs to be fundamentally changed.

“U.S. History needs to be more than the study of white men and their impact on this country,” Ring said. “Between the George Washingtons and Franklin Roosevelts of U.S. History are an incredible array of interesting and critical stories vital to the understanding of our country and those stories are as diverse as the country itself. At this moment, I would really like to think that social studies departments across the country are reevaluating the stories being told in our classes to better reflect what our country actually looks like.”

He said he has never taught a lesson on Juneteenth, but that will change as of next year.

“There is momentum in state legislatures around the country for turning Juneteenth into a holiday,” Ring said. “This could happen at the federal level as well. Like any holiday students get off, they should know the significance of the day.”

Thursday, Gov. Ned Lamont indicated he was open to the idea of making Juneteenth a holiday.

Many companies across America have started giving employees the day off or at least observing a moment of silence in honor of Juneteenth. Caraballo said the appreciation for the holiday and the culture must start before people reach a working age.

“If we make sure to teach children young, and to express that all races, ethnicities, sexualities and religions are valid then these problems won’t come up as often,” Caraballo said. “Children of color and children of ‘minority groups’ shouldn’t have to feel like ‘others.’ They should feel accepted and respected at all times. That is the bare minimum.”