This week Gov. Ralph Northam declared Juneteenth a state holiday, saying “awareness and education are critical to our path forward.” Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, marks the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, the final Confederate state to abolish slavery.
Central to the mission of the R.R. Moton Museum is education, and on the front lines of that effort is Cainan Townsend ’15, M.S. ’20, director of education and public programs at the museum, and a member of the governor’s Commission for African American History Education. We sat down with Townsend to talk about how he teaches Juneteenth and its importance in American history classrooms.
Juneteenth is a watershed moment that gets the conversation from the Emancipation Proclamation to the ratification of the 13th Amendment at the end of 1865.Cainan Townsend ’15, M.S. ’20, director of education and public programs at the Moton Museum Tweet This
Talk about some of the education outreach that you do at the Moton Museum.
As museum educators, we do a wide range of activities, not just guided tours of the Moton Museum. We also offer digital programming, presentations, and guided primary source analysis, and we work directly with other community organizations and on other outreach efforts. The primary way we reach students is by traveling to schools within about a two-hour radius and working directly with American history classes.
Today is Juneteenth. Does the history of that day play a part in much of your outreach?
Most of the time I begin conversations with the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, which happened about 30 years after Juneteenth, but we often go back and talk about the Emancipation Proclamation and its implications. Juneteenth is a watershed moment that gets the conversation from the Emancipation Proclamation to the ratification of the 13th Amendment at the end of 1865.
Why is Juneteenth important?
The Black experience in U.S. history is often seen through the lens of victimization and tragedy. Juneteenth is a significant example of resilience and fortitude within the Black existence. Black individuals were never passive observers of slavery, Jim Crow, or Massive Resistance. There was always action and reaction. There was always persistence in the face of oppression. I think Juneteenth is a great way to show another side of that experience.
Juneteenth should be a day that we mark one milestone and look ahead to creating more milestones in our own time.Cainan Townsend ’15, M.S. ’20, director of education and public programs at the Moton Museum Tweet This
What is your sense of how Juneteenth is taught in classrooms?
Sadly, I don’t think a lot of people know what Juneteenth is. I know that I didn’t learn about it until I went to college. I remember being shocked that the Civil War ended in April 1865 but that people were still enslaved until more than two months later. And when slaves were finally freed in Texas on June 19, that’s a day worth marking.
It’s critical that we tell that story because it deepens our understanding of American history. I think Gov. Northam’s declaring today a state holiday for government operations is a great first step, but we absolutely have to rewrite the standards of learning that our children are taught so that Juneteenth is included.
Last night, the Farmville Town Council voted unanimously to remove the Confederate Monument on High Street that stands across from campus. Communities across the country are wrestling with decisions like this. As an educator, what are your thoughts?
We live in the legacy of the lost cause. We can see it in statues, school and road names, holidays, etc. When broaching the topic it is imperative to note the historical context: When did these monuments go up? Why did they go up in the first place? What did the people putting them up say when they put them up?
A lot of people are surprised to learn that most Confederate monuments went up during the Jim Crow era, not immediately following the Civil War. African Americans began to see some progress during Reconstruction, and the response to that was Jim Crow laws, "separate but equal" statutes, and Massive Resistance. People said things like, "the dark days of Reconstruction are over" when raising these monuments. Farmville's monument was erected in 1900—35 years after the end of the war.
At the Moton Museum, we try to teach to not demonize or deify. Humanity is imperfect and complicated. We ask visitors, "What are your values? What were the values of people at that time?" We make mistakes and we learn from them. Moving the monuments I believe is an acknowledgment of those mistakes.
You serve on the Commission for African American History Education, a group the governor has tasked with re-examining the way history classes are taught across Virginia. How has Juneteenth been a part of that conversation?
Juneteenth will absolutely be included in our recommendations. If we celebrate July 4, we should celebrate June 19. If you look at what’s happening across the country—and really the world—today, people don’t want revisionist history or glossed-over history. They are crying out for us to deal with this, and I think if we start learning about Juneteenth in history classes, that opens the door to teach students about a lot of different cultures.
How can people best mark Juneteenth?
I hope people treat Juneteenth as a day of remembrance and appreciation for those who came before us, and just as importantly as a day of reflection as to where we are now and what we have to do.
I think about this all the time. There were slaves in this place for nearly 250 years, and then began more than 150 years of mass incarceration of minority populations, which persists. Juneteenth should be a day that we mark one milestone and look ahead to creating more milestones in our own time.
Townsend also serves on the Virginia African American Cultural Resources Task Force, a Virginia Humanities advisory coalition that supports community-driven and people-centered Black historic preservation, with information and resource sharing, outreach, and education.