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What Juneteenth teaches us about key executive function skills

Have you ever wondered why June 19th, or Juneteenth, holds a special place in American history?


By looking closely at Juneteenth's history, we can learn a great deal about not only the legacy of courageous African Americans, but also about how to face life's challenges with strength, resilience, and adaptability, even under the most stressful of circumstances.


Take the story of Robert Smalls, for instance. Smalls, once an enslaved man, daringly stole a Confederate ship, and use his wits and wherewithal to navigate perilous waters to freedom.


His tale is more than just an exciting escape—it's a lesson in courage and quick thinking, skills that can help us tackle unexpected situations in our own lives.


Or imagine Harriet Tubman, under the cover of the night sky, guiding frightened enslaved people to freedom along the secret paths of the Underground Railroad.


Her actions weren't just brave—they were meticulously planned and coordinated. From her, we learn the power of organization and strategy, essential skills when we're striving to achieve our goals.


Let's explore these inspiring stories and the executive function skills they embody. Lessons from our past can guide us in strengthening our own resilience, adaptability, and planning skills.


And best of all -- they help us understand how we can shape a brighter, more equitable future for all.


So what is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, marks the day in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas were officially informed of their freedom, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.


This day is observed as a celebration of the end of slavery in the United States and serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice.


It's a day to recognize the contributions of African Americans to the nation, reflect on the injustices they've endured, and engage in conversations about racial equity.


Quick Facts About Juneteenth

  • In June 2021, President Joe Biden signed the legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday.

  • As of May 2023, all 50 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or observance...

  • And at least 22 states and the District of Columbia have designated Juneteenth as a permanent paid and/or legal holiday through legislation or executive action.


Resilience and Adaptability

Resilience and adaptability were the keys to survival for many African Americans both during and after the end of slavery. These executive functions allowed them to thrive amidst adversity and institutionalized discrimination.


Let's look at the story of Robert Smalls, a slave who exemplified these qualities. Smalls was an enslaved African American who, during the Civil War, stole a Confederate military ship and sailed it to freedom. He later purchased the house where he had been held as a slave, became a successful businessman, and was eventually elected to the U.S. Congress.


Oh, and by the way, he also authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.


His journey demonstrates an extraordinary ability to adapt and remain resilient in the face of monumental challenges.


"My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere...All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."
-Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls sitting with a description of his work with the school system
Robert Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.

Planning and Organizing

Planning and organizing were crucial in the long and challenging journey toward emancipation. One example is the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses that enabled many enslaved people to escape to free states and Canada.


Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave, used meticulous planning and organizing skills to conduct missions that led to the liberation of approximately 70 enslaved people.


She was also the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War when she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people.


After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, Harriet helped guide escapees farther north into British North America (Canada) and helped newly freed people find work.


The planning and organizing skills displayed by Harriet and countless other African Americans were indispensable in high-risk operations where a single misstep could have devastating consequences.


"I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
-Harriet Tubman

Picture of Harriet Tubman with a fact about her
Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War when she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 enslaved people.


Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

The struggle for freedom required a long-term perspective, impulse control, and an understanding of delayed gratification.


The freedom suits, legal cases in the 19th century where enslaved individuals sued for their freedom, exemplify this.


Dred Scott, who sued for his and his wife's freedom in 1847, patiently fought for a decade through multiple appeals, only to be denied. Scott, an enslaved man, argued for his freedom based on his residence in free territories.


The Supreme Court's decision, asserting that African Americans were not citizens, stirred national controversy. Abraham Lincoln, in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, argued against the decision stating it was based on a "false political doctrine".


The uproar this case incited intensified abolitionist efforts, widened the North-South divide, and accelerated the path to the Civil War, which ultimately abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment.


Despite its initial setback, the Dred Scott case sparked a chain of events that led to significant progress toward racial equality.


“A man is a man, until that man finds a plan, a plan that makes that man, a new man”
-Dred Scott
painting of Dred Scott with a fact about him with yellow halo
Dred Scott unsuccessfully suing for his and his wife's freedom, spurred national divisions over slavery, paving the way for slavery's abolition through the 13th Amendment post-Civil War.

Self-Advocacy

Juneteenth is also a reminder of the importance of self-advocacy, a quality robustly embodied by Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became a powerful advocate for abolition and women's rights.


Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797 and faced numerous hardships early in her life, including being sold several times, enduring harsh physical labor, and suffering violent punishments. She had at least three of her children sold away from her, a deep personal loss that was a tragic reality of enslaved people's lives.


Despite these difficulties, Truth escaped from slavery in 1826 with her infant daughter. After New York State's Emancipation Act was passed in 1827, she successfully sued for the return of her 5-year-old son Peter, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. This made her one of the first black women to challenge a white man in a United States court and win.


In 1843, she changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth and devoted her life to Methodism and the abolition of slavery. She became a powerful speaker against slavery and for women's rights.


Her speech "Ain't I a Woman?", delivered at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, challenged prevailing societal norms about race and gender, and remains a cornerstone of feminist discourse today.


In addition to her work in abolition and women's rights, Truth also helped recruit black troops for the Union Army during the Civil War, and she fought for black suffrage during the Reconstruction era. Her life serves as a testament to overcoming adversity and effecting change despite immense challenges.


If women want any rights more than they's got, why don't they just take them, and not be talking about it.
-Sojourner Truth
Picture of Sojourner Truth with fact about her
Following New York's Emancipation Act in 1827, Sojourner Truth made history by successfully suing for her son's return, becoming the first black woman to win a court case against a white man in the U.S

Conclusion

The lessons we draw from Juneteenth aren't confined to the history books. They extend into our lives today, enhancing our ability to face challenges with resilience, to adapt in the face of change, and to plan our paths forward. These are the foundations of executive function skills.


As we delve deeper into these abilities, perhaps you see an opportunity for your child, or for yourself, to learn and grow. Consider taking a step forward on this path with our free course, 'Enhance Your Executive Function Skills.' Here, you'll find practical ways to apply these skills in your day-to-day life.


To continue the conversation, join our community by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. You'll gain access to a wealth of resources designed to enrich your understanding and practice of executive function skills.


Just as the heroes of Juneteenth embarked on their journeys toward freedom and growth, let's take our own steps toward personal development. Let the courage and tenacity mirrored in their stories inspire our journey toward a more empowered future.


Resources


About the author

Sean G. McCormick founded Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He trains educators, parents, and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges through his courses in the Executive Function Coaching Academy.

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