The Historical Significance of Juneteenth for Child Care

June 20, 2023

Juneteenth 23 - Blog Hero V3-1

“Some of my favorite memories are of being in the care of my grandmother, who was a family child care provider, but Nana to me. I wanted my own daughter to enjoy that same feeling of love and security Nana provides when it was time for her to be in child care. Finding a child care environment that surrounded my daughter with love and recognition that her Black is beautiful in the same way that Nana cared for me was important. That culturally responsive care that we yearned for was ultimately found in a Black child care provider.”  
“My career in child care policy made me more familiar with the history of child care in America. As I searched down the timeline to get to the origin of the experience that families and providers face, I made the connection that child care in the U.S. is rooted in chattel slavery. Enslaved Black women were forced (and trusted) to nurture their oppressors. Black women cared for (including breastfeeding) their enslaver’s children, while their own children were sold, or forced to work alongside them.”  
  - Keisha Nzewi, Co-Founder, Black Californians United for Early Childcare Education  


During the Civil war, over 200,000 enslaved Black Americans were forced on an involuntary journey to Texas. Many of them were children, or journeyed with children because white human traffickers fleeing the battlegrounds of the Civil War needed them to toil the land to meet their economic demands. That June day when news reached enslaved Black children, men and women in Texas that slavery had been outlawed, Juneteenth was celebrated by families rising out of the trenches of emotional pain to find lost loved ones. On that day, whispers of freedom and salvation graced the ears of uncertainty. 

Though we are more than 150 years post-Juneteenth, it remains important to understand the impact the legacy of chattel slavery has on our child care system and honor Juneteenth as just the beginning [and not the end] of liberation for Black people in America. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, one out of four enslaved Black Americans were children, and nearly half of families were torn apart when spouses were sold. Whites separating Black families was normalized through an intentional disconnection between devalued labor and a whole family being at the center of work readiness.  

The first Juneteenth was celebrated in Texas by families rising out of the trenches of emotional pain to find lost loved ones. On that first Juneteenth, whispers of freedom and salvation graced the ears of uncertainty. Ears overburdened with the gravity of bloodshed and traditions that thrived on racial oppression. One of the first things that Black people did after they gained freedom was seek political office and make public education free. The 1877 Tilden Compromise ushered in an expansion of racist laws that flew under the banner of Jim Crow to roll back the gains established by Black political participation.  

Jim Crow was a whitelash to Black people exercising their equal rights that simultaneously reestablished racial dominance over Black labor. The slavery clause of the 13th Amendment meant that if you were arrested, you could be re-enslaved (the beginnings of our modern-day prison system). This was used to devalue the cost of Black labor in a way in which white society as a whole was able to profit. These racial demands of labor also shaped outcomes that reproduced racial disparities in spaces that Blacks and whites co-existed within. 

Through most of the 20th century, Black women remained the primary child care providers for white families. Depreciating the value of labor in an industry that was overrepresented by Black women created sustainable access to quality child care for the white middle class at the cost of reducing access to everyone else. Today, Black women make on average .78 cents less per hour than white child care workers. The child care workforce in the U.S. makes, on average, $11.65/hr, far below what anyone needs to be paid to thrive. This is possible because child care was originally enslaved Black women’s work. And even today, the lens through which our child care system works is in service to white people. 

Despite the realities of child care, the strength of Black families has allowed Black children to persevere. Black children have gone from being torn from their mothers and fathers during chattel slavery, to being more likely to be expelled as toddlers and preschoolers. This historical experience is connected through the devaluation of Black labor that requires disciplinary action as a barrier to equal opportunity. White-led legislative priorities have labeled Black equal opportunity as a threat to democracy since Jim Crow. Child care has felt the brunt of that burden because of its inability to meet the needs of the majority of Americans.  

Black children demonstrate daily their brilliance, joy, inquisitiveness and magic. Juneteenth gives us all the opportunity to reflect on how we stand in the way of liberation for Black child care workers, children and families, and how we can, in turn, stand up for freedom. Celebrating Juneteenth has never been about celebrating freedom. Celebrating Juneteenth has always been about the magic of Black families when abracadabras and alakazams have been taken away. Child care after Juneteenth must ask how we are working to create a better future for Black children with strength and endurance as was done for with the first celebration of Juneteenth.  

Continue the conversation with us. Watch our June 29 webinar recording: The Historical Significance of Juneteenth for Child Care 

Topics: diversity equity and inclusion