Culture

JUNETEENTH: ON THE FREEING OF THE LAST SLAVES IN TEXAS

June 19, 2019
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As we join the Juneteenth celebration throughout the country this week, marking the day in Texas that the last slaves were informed of their freedom, let’s look at the history behind Juneteenth in a different way.  

Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect on January 1st, 1863. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865; and then Lincoln was assassinated on April 15th, 1865. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi, located in Texas, surrendered on June 2nd, 1865.

Then, on June 19th, 1865, General Gordon Granger read General Order No.3, a simple proclamation, from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas.

“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 quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Thus, the Juneteenth proclamation said that slaves were free from bondage, but were not going to be allowed to leave their masters or to seek military protection — hardly a resounding proclamation of unbridled freedom. General Granger had arrived with 2,000 Union troops just the day before, to enforce the order.

In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln had exempted those slave states not involved in the Confederate rebellion: Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and the territory which is now West Virginia. He also exempted the captured territories of Tennessee, Louisiana and Southeast Virginia.  The Emancipation Proclamation was meant to disrupt the institution of slavery only in those states that were in rebellion and fighting the Union in the Civil War.

Until the day that Lincoln was assassinated, he worked on several different fronts, not always in line with the high ideal that once the slaves were freed they would be welcomed into the post-war society. In his book, What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President, historian Michael Lind explains that, in 1862, Lincoln appointed James Mitchell, former director of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in Indiana, to “oversee the government’s colonization programs.” The ACS was an organization dedicated to solving the “race problem” by moving free Blacks to a government-established colony in Africa. Lincoln “allegedly asked Attorney General Edward Bates if the Reverend James Mitchell could stay on as ‘your assistant or aid in the matter of executing the several acts of Congress relating to the emigration or colonizing of the freed Blacks.’“

In 1858 during his fourth debate with Steven Douglas, Lincoln made a statement that helps us understand his actions in support of the ACS and its mission in 1865.

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

A cynical person might say that the Proclamation was more the work of a military strategist and avowed segregationist than a great emancipator.

Lincoln and Congress did pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in April of 1864. But the Amendment was not ratified by the required number of states until December of 1865, months after Lincoln’s death. Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner from Massachusetts and Thaddeus Stevens from Pennsylvania were the legislators largely responsible for pushing the Amendment through the U.S. Congress. They were part of the group of Northern legislators who tried to ensure that the freed slaves would be put on equal footing with the white population. During Reconstruction, some progress was made towards realizing this dream. But in 1876, Reconstruction ended and the South plunged back into inequality, embracing white supremacy, Jim Crow and segregation.

Texas was annexed into the Union in 1845 as a slave state. Northern legislators opposed the annexation of Texas as a ruse by Southerners to spread slavery into new territories. They could not have been more correct. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, but Anglos coming into Texas worked around this law by forcing slaves to sign contracts saying they had debts to be worked off or were indentured servants — with life-long terms. In 1836 (during the Texas Revolution) there were 5,000 slaves. In 1845 (at the U.S. annexation of Texas) there were 30,000 slaves. By 1860, there were 180,000 slaves; and by the end of the Civil War, more than 250,000.  The reason for the large growth in the number of slaves between 1860 and 1865 was a diabolical one. Slave owners from the Southeast moved themselves and their slaves to Texas to avoid having their slaves taken in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas during the Civil War.

Emancipation was proclaimed by Lincoln. But it was the slaves, free people of color, and whites of goodwill who were largely responsible for ending slavery, by making the institution untenable. In 1850 alone, an estimated 3,000 slaves from Texas escaped into Mexico. During the Civil War, an estimated 75% of the slaves in Kentucky escaped behind Union lines. In border-slave-states, there were daily pitched battles between slave owners and slave catchers, and slaves, free Blacks, anti-slavery sympathizers and heroic abolitionists like John Brown, who were helping slaves escape, or inciting them to revolt.  The Underground Railroad was also active in border-slave-states helping runaway slaves. Even in the heart of the Confederacy, it is estimated that more than 11,000 escaped slaves lived in and around the Great Dismal Swamp, between Virginia and North Carolina.

So, as we celebrate that fateful day of June 19th, 1865, and pay homage to the last slaves who heard the news about slavery’s end in Galveston, let’s also take a new and larger view and celebrate the true great emancipators — the people of color and goodwill whose heroic resistance helped topple the vile institution. 

Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creoles and Slavery in Louisiana and Reclaiming Black History: Finding Admirable Ancestor, a Wealth of Heroism and Traits that Shatter Defeatist Clichés

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