Black History Fun Fact Friday – Juneteenth

I don’t celebrate holidays (this includes Kwanzaa and Juneteenth.) But it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t explore what this day is and what makes it so special for Black Americans; many replacing their 4th of July celebrations with Juneteenth instead. Despite my personal thoughts on it I respect the day as an important part of history to remember and I don’t believe we’ve ever covered it on this blog.


According to the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln January 1, 1863, the proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” By rebellious states it was referring to those states that had seceded or withdrawn from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. The freedom it promised also depended upon United States military victory. In brief, Emancipation only applied to those slaves who lived near Union lines.

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News of the supposed emancipation did not spread as quickly as the movies would have us to believe. Many slave-owners packed up their belongings and their slaves and moved to Texas in mass. “Since the capture of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach.” (Henry Louis Gates Jr.) In a hurried re-enactment of the original Middle Passage, more than 150,000 slaves had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of SlaveryAs one former slave he quotes recalled,”‘It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.’’ For the next two years, slave owners and the enslaved would live removed from the updates of the war and slavery would go on, business as usual.

And so, when General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, on June 19th to lead the Union occupation force, he had to deal with ongoing slavery in defiance of the Emancipation Proclamation. To fix this, he issued the following order:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

This second proclamation, specifying that all slaves were free, is the foundation to the celebration of Juneteenth, a combining of June and the nineteenth when the order was issued. However, it is also important to know that just like the first proclamation, this order did not free all the enslaved.

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“There is much evidence to suggest that southern whites—especially Confederate parolees—perpetrated more acts of violence against newly freed bondspeople in Texas than in other states,” writes historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner in an essay titled “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory.” “Between the Neches and Sabine rivers and north to Henderson,” she continues, “reports showed that blacks continued in a form of slavery, intimidated by former Confederate soldiers still in uniform and bearing arms.” Murder, lynching, and harassment were common. “You could see lots of Negroes hanging from trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom,” reported one freed slave, “They would catch them swimming across Sabine River and shoot them.”

Still, Blacks celebrated their freedom with the first official Juneteenth event taking place in 1866 where they read the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and praised Abraham Lincoln as the great liberator. (I find this odd but that’s another topic for another day). The celebrations continued until coming to a halt with the institution of Jim Crow, laws that essentially put Blacks back into a form of slavery where we were fully disenfranchised and outside of the law. Convict Leasing is a great example of this. After the Civil War and the end of slavery, Southern states, who had amassed great wealth from slavery, found their economy in shambles.

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They had to figure out how to keep a slave-like system going and like sharecropping, convict leasing was another answer. Black Codes and Pig Laws, unfairly penalized poor African Americans for crimes such as stealing a pig. It was also a crime to be unemployed. These laws could be imposed on Black men easily, sending them to jail and thus former slave owners turned “entrepreneurs” could lease them to various companies that would work them to death and treat them like they were slaves. This made the states tons of money. In 1883, about 10 percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately 10 times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.

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Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900 (Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

Juneteenth didn’t make a full resurgence until The Civil Rights Movement when Blacks began to celebrate it in full again. And while many Blacks have celebrated it for centuries, it still did not become an official Holiday until it was made a Texas state holiday in 1980, and it wasn’t until 1997 that Congress recognized June 19th as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” after pressure from a collection of groups like the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage and National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation.


For more Black History Fun Facts, be sure to visit the BHFFF Page HERE.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – William Still

Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday. Today, as promised, we are looking at the life of William Still.

Since it’s been a busy week, I did not actually get to write an article. I usually stay up late to draft these but I couldn’t do three articles last night. So, I am posting a brief biography of Still’s life from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center which you can find at the source below.

Source: http://freedomcenter.org/content/william-still

“William Still was born in Burlington County, New Jersey. His father, Levin Steel, had been enslaved, purchased his own freedom, and changed his name to Still to protect his wife, Sidney. Mrs. Still had tried to escape once before she succeeded, but could only bring two of her children with her. William Still had little formal education but studied whenever he could. In 1844, William moved to Philadelphia.

In 1847, he found a job as a clerk and janitor for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He soon began aiding fugitive slaves, often sheltering them until they could find their way farther north. One fugitive was his older brother, Peter, who had been left behind when his mother escaped forty years earlier. These experiences led William to save careful records about the people he helped. Meanwhile, Still purchased real estate, opened a store selling stoves, and later founded a successful coal business.

Before the Civil War Still had destroyed many of his records about aiding fugitives, because he feared they would be used to prosecute people. After the war, his children persuaded him to write the story of his exploits and the people he helped. Still’s book, The Underground Railroad (1872), is one of the most important historical records we have. Although Still recognized the many contributions of white abolitionists, he portrayed the fugitives as courageous individuals who struggled for their own freedom. Still proudly exhibited his book at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.”

Source: http://freedomcenter.org/content/william-still

Blackdom: The First All-Black Settlement in New Mexico

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Many of us are familiar with the Greenwood Community of North Tulsa Oklahoma where blacks built the most prominent community of their time. Deemed “The Golden Door” of opportunity for blacks, the dollar  in “Little Africa” circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community, hence its nickname “Black Wall Street” along with “Little Africa” before its systematic destruction that left it torn and desolate. But it wasn’t until my trip to New Mexico this past week that I discovered other communities that are also worthy of inclusion in Black Wall Street’s Hall of Fame.

Blackdom

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Blackdom was a little known African American community about 18 miles southwest of Roswell New Mexico and was founded by Frank and Ella Boyer. Walking 2,000 miles on foot from Georgia to New Mexico, Boyer left his wife and children behind to cultivate land in the free territory of the West before sending for his family some three years later. At this time in history Blacks had begun migrating from the south in great numbers in a movement called “The Great Exodus” following the Homestead Act of 1862, particularly in Kansas. According to a 2001 archaeological study on the Blackdom region from the Museum of New Mexico, “During the decade of the 1870s, 9,500 blacks from Kentucky and Tennessee migrated to Kansas. By 1880 there were 43,110 blacks in Kansas.”

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The Homestead Act gave room for former slaves and free born blacks to reside in the West regardless of race. Here was an abundance of land, free and fertile to anyone who could keep it up. Influenced by W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglass according to historians, Frank was a graduate of Morehouse University and a teacher of Black History which at this time was not very popular. He met his wife, Ella McGruder, a graduate from Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, at a teacher’s summer school session. The couple had four children (three sons, one daughter) when Frank set out for New Mexico in 1896.

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The desire and influence to build community was first conceived in the mind of Frank’s father, Henry Boyer, a free man. Henry was a wagoner in the American-Mexican war when he first set eyes on the New Mexico land. When he came home, he told stories to his family of the land. Growing up during the Reconstruction Era, after the Civil War, Frank naturally grew up with his father’s dreams in his head and saw the West as the Promised Land to a new start. Ironically, the same life force that made Blackdom thrive as a community was also its downfall. The Artesian Water sprang in abundance as more and more blacks were invited and nourished on the land. Blackdom had its own school, and post office. However, the Artesian Wells eventually dried up and citizens were forced to move to nearby cities such as Roswell to continue their lives. The Boyer family were the last to leave.

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After Emancipation, in theory black people were free. They were released from the physical chains of bondage. This freedom however, much like sharecropping, said that one could be self-sufficient by earning a profit, but by the end of the year the amount of debt incurred was a reality check concerning the freedom, or lack therof that actually existed. In the same way, Emancipation didn’t mean anything for a people who continued to suffer spiritually, financially, and mentally from the trials of chattel slavery. For this reason, not all blacks settled to continue occupation in the South but many of them invested in the hard work that slavery demanded and sought to use those skills to work their own lands and build their own communities. These stories fascinate me because it is a part of black history that is rarely, if ever, told. Not all blacks endured economic struggle and poverty after slavery but some, if only for a moment, maintained an air of economic dependency and not only succeeded, but prospered in the process.