Over Two Years After Emancipation, and with a Fight – Juneteenth

Juneteenth is a heralded largely African-American, and since 1980 an official Texan holiday. In the ongoing social justice fight, it’s amazing now to see corporations like Twitter, Nike, and Target, and others making it an official company holiday. Now that Black Lives Matter has resurged and major entities are offering much-needed Juneteenth education to their masses, Black people — the descendants of the enslaved have been celebrating, writing about, and honoring this day on or around June 19, 1865, for many years.

The Lonestar state, the last state in the union to have released enslaved Africans with the enforcement and power of the federal government, were finally free.  Or were we? Black people are still being lynched, killed, and abused by systemic racism, elected officials receive money from the Fraternal Order of Police which is a code of silence that swears them to rhetoric but the slow action of dismantling structures towards change.

In spite of these hurdles, we press on and take pause. Juneteenth is celebrated with the same sense of community, and familial love of the famous African-American cookout or family reunion. Local businesses, bands, and respected leaders march in parades, have barbeques, dance to music, sing, play Black trivia, connect, sip on red soda water to honor the perseverance, and bloodshed of our ancestors.

The following account was excerpted from The Hidden History of Juneteenth by Gregory P. Owens, written in June of 2015:

The historical origins of Juneteenth are unclear. On June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger, newly arrived with 1,800 men in Texas, ordered that “all slaves are free” in Texas and that there would be an “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” The idea that any such proclamation would still need to be issued in June 1865 – two months after the surrender at Appomattox – forces us to rethink how and when slavery and the Civil War really ended. And in turn it helps us recognize Juneteenth as not just a bookend to the Civil War but as a celebration and commemoration of the epic struggles of emancipation and Reconstruction.

By June 19, 1865, it had been more than two years since President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, almost five months since Congress passed the 13th Amendment, and more than two months since General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army at Appomattox Court House. So why did Granger need to act to end slavery?

Granger’s arrival on June 19 marked the first effective intervention of the United States in Texas on the side of ending slavery.

So when Granger issued his proclamation in Galveston, it was no abstract or symbolic statement against slavery and rebellion; he was striking a blow against slavery itself in the place where it remained most firmly entrenched in June 1865.

The internecine conflict and the institution of slavery could not and did not end neatly at Appomattox or on Galveston Island. Ending slavery was not simply a matter of issuing pronouncements. It was a matter of forcing rebels to obey the law. To a very real extent, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment amounted to promissory notes of freedom. The real on-the-ground work of ending slavery and defending the rudiments of liberty was done by the freedpeople in collaboration with and often backed by the force of the US Army.

Granger’s proclamation may not have brought news of emancipation but it did carry this crucial promise of force. Within weeks, fifty thousand U.S. troops flooded into the state in a late-arriving occupation. These soldiers were needed because planters would not give up on slavery. In October 1865, months after the June orders, white Texans in some regions “still claim and control [slaves] as property, and in two or three instances recently bought and sold them,” according to one report. To sustain slavery, some planters systematically murdered rebellious African-Americans to try to frighten the rest into submission. A report by the Texas constitutional convention claimed that between 1865 and 1868, white Texans killed almost 400 black people; black Texans, the report claimed, killed 10 whites. Other planters hoped to hold onto slavery in one form or another until they could overturn the Emancipation Proclamation in court.

Against this resistance, the Army turned to force. In a largely forgotten or misunderstood occupation, the Army spread more than 40 outposts across Texas to teach rebels “the idea of law as an irresistible power to which all must bow.” Freedpeople, as Haywood’s [a freed slave] quote reminds us, did not need the Army to teach them about freedom; they needed the Army to teach planters the futility of trying to sustain slavery.

Against that resistance, and in response to freedpeople’s complaints, the Army acted as if the Civil War had not in fact ended. Relying upon its broad war powers to exert control over civilians, the Army attacked slavery by arresting judges and sheriffs, taking control over court cases, running military commissions, and suspending habeas corpus. As Texas’ provisional governor—a white loyalist—tried to build a new state, the Army provided crucial support against a developing insurgency.

Slowly, slavery itself ended. By the winter of 1865-1866, freedpeople, the Army, and white loyalists had extinguished the ‘peculiar institution’ in Texas. Under the threat of continued military occupation, President Andrew Johnson coerced former Confederate states into inscribing this change into the Constitution by ratifying the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

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