TEXAS — President Biden signed a bill Thursday designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday; a win for activists who have been pushing for national recognition of the holiday for years.
Candace Hunter still remembers learning about Juneteenth, the day that commemorates when the last enslaved people in Texas were told they were free.
“I’m like, ‘We have a holiday, and everybody celebrates it? This is fantastic!’" said Hunter. "I would say that did more for my taking pride in being Black, than anything else.”
It’s an important part of American history she’s taught her kids about, and shared with students during her years as a history teacher.
When President Biden signed the bill recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, it was the moment Hunter had been waiting for.
“This is the pinnacle point. And I think that we want to be able to commemorate this, we want people to remember, but we don't want people to be comfortable. We don't want to sit on our laurels. It's great that we will have this holiday… But what we also have to remember is that we still have a long way to go," said Hunter.
The bill’s passage was a bipartisan effort led by Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and Senator John Cornyn.
“I think particularly now in racially fraught times… that it’s important for all Americans to learn more about our history, including the original sin of slavery," said Cornyn.
But activists say the win is tainted by efforts from Texas lawmakers to restrict how teachers can discuss issues related to racism and sexism in the classroom.
Abbott signed a bill Tuesday that seeks to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Critical race theory is an advanced academic and legal framework that analyzes the role of systemic racism in society.
On Wednesday Governor Greg Abbott announced that he will also be adding the issue of critical race theory to a special session agenda.
Hunter says it’s just a political maneuver to stoke outrage over a problem that doesn’t exist.
“There's no critical race theory being taught in K through 12 as far as I know in the state of Texas, it's not in our curriculum," said Hunter.
While the bill doesn’t directly mention the concept of critical race theory, it does restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and current events.
House Bill 3979 requires the State Board of Education to create a revised civics curriculum for students, and it also requires that teachers who choose to discuss current events deemed controversial do so without “giving deference to any one perspective.”
“I think critical race theory is wrong, because as I understand it, it basically says you can explain everything through a lens of race," said Cornyn.
“There are two sides of the story. Yes, there's a Lincoln and a Douglas, yes there is a Republican and Democrat… That's why we want to focus it back on what the facts are, and not some leftist progressive interpretation. At this point of time, we're not going to do that," said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-7.
The bill also limits how teachers can teach about the role of racism and sexism in current and historical events.
Supporters of the bill say it’s meant to take the politics out of education and not portray one race as superior to the other, but some parents and educators worry that it’s an attempt to whitewash history.
Hunter is also concerned this bill will prevent teachers from discussing the nuances of sexism and racism in society today, as they aim to make their lessons more inclusive.
"We're all very shocked when it happens to Mike Brown, we're all very shocked when it happens to George Floyd... But you know what, it keeps happening. What are we learning?" said Hunter.
“I want to be able to say to kids, 'That was wrong and as a country, we've learned better. But really have we?' I guess would be my follow up to that, and then have a really rich discussion and debrief with my students, before I set them off for the day."
“When that discussion can't be had in an open way in the classroom, then we're not giving students the kinds of tools that they're going to need to go out into society to go out into their communities to go into their workplaces to have constructive conversations," said Raúl A. Ramos, Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies at the University of Houston.
“This is happening to our families. This is not some, you know theory or that we're watching on TV or whatever, this is happening to kids we know, their parents are being deported. Their uncles are being shot in the street, so we have to deal with this," said Hunter.
Abbott hasn’t announced details of when that special session will happen. So until then, Hunter says she’s choosing to focus on looking forward to Juneteenth.
“The idea that everybody will be celebrating it, this year our white friends and our Hispanic friends and our Asian friends will all be with us. We'll have a big picnic, and then we'll go down to the parking lot, watch the fireworks that's gonna be cool," said Hunter.