Black History Fun Fact Friday – Juneteenth

I don’t celebrate holidays (this includes Kwanzaa and Juneteenth. How can I celebrate the end of slavery when we are still in captivity? Maybe I’ll celebrate it next year, the marking of our 400 years in this land.) Nonetheless, it wouldn’t be right (in keeping with my Black History origin traditions on this blog) if we didn’t explore what this day is and what makes it so special for many Black Americans; many replacing their 4th of July celebrations with Juneteenth instead. It is still an important part of history to remember and I don’t believe we’ve ever covered it on this blog so here goes.

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 By rebellious states it was referring to those states that had seceded or withdrawn from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states.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 exactly free the slaves.

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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). 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.

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