Saturday, June 20, 2015

The hidden history of Juneteenth

The historical origins of Juneteenth are clear. 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?

To answer that question, we have to look back at slavery, the Civil War, and Texas’ peculiar place in both histories. During the Civil War, white planters forcibly moved tens of thousands of slaves to Texas, hoping to keep them in bondage and away from the U.S. Army. Even after Lee surrendered, Confederate Texans dreamed of sustaining the rebel cause there. Only on June 2, 1865, after the state’s rebel governor had already fled to Mexico, did Confederate Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith agree to surrender the state. For more than two weeks, chaos reigned as people looted the state treasury, and no one was certain who was in charge.

In that chaos, many African-Americans fled, some across the river in Mexico, a less-remembered pathway to freedom in the decades before the Civil War. Others launched strikes or refused to work. But in a state where whites outnumbered slaves more than two-to-one, planters and ranchers did everything in their power to sustain slavery wherever they could.

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.

But what did Granger’s proclamation mean? One oft-told myth has it that Texans simply did not know that slavery had ended. What Granger brought, in this telling, was good news. But if we listen to the words of someone like Felix Haywood, a slave in Texas during the Civil War, we see that this was not so. “We knowed what was goin’ on in [the war] all the time,” Haywood later remembered. At emancipation, “We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.”

If Haywood and other enslaved people knew about the Emancipation Proclamation, what exactly did the events of June 19, 1865 mean? Here we face a key forgotten reality about the end of the Civil War and slavery that has been shrouded in the mythology of Appomattox. 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.

Juneteenth celebration in Austin, Texas, on June 19, 1900

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 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.

Much more here.  And here's a list of Juneteenth celebrations and activities in the Houston and Galveston area.  Seems like a great day to burn a Confederate flag, doesn't it?

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