Posted June 17, 2022 5:59 AM
Tufts University / The Conversation
The actual day was June 19, 1865, and it was the black dockworkers of Galveston, Texas who first heard word that freedom for slaves had come. There were talks, sermons and shared meals, mostly held in black churches, the safest places to hold such celebrations.
The perils of unjust laws and racist social customs were still great in Texas for the 250,000 enslaved black people there, but the celebrations known as Juneteenth would have lasted seven consecutive days.
Part of the spontaneous jubilation was over General Gordon Granger’s General Order No. 3. It read in part: “The people of Texas are informed that, pursuant to a proclamation of the Executive Branch of the United States, all slaves are free.
But the emancipation that took place in Texas that day in 1865 was just the latest in a series of emancipations that had been happening since the 1770s, including the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln two years earlier on January 1, 1863.
As I explore in my book “Black Ghost of Empire”, between the 1780s and 1930s, during the era of liberal empire and the rise of modern humanitarianism, more than 80 emancipations from slavery occurred are produced, from Pennsylvania in 1780 to Sierra Leone in 1936.
There were, in fact, 20 separate emancipations in the United States alone, from 1780 to 1865, across the northern and southern United States.
In my opinion, as a scholar of race and colonialism, Emancipation Days – June 19 in Texas – is not what many people think, because emancipation did not do what most of us think she did.
As historians have long documented, emancipations did not remove all the shackles that prevented blacks from obtaining full citizenship rights. Nor did emancipations prevent states from enacting their own laws prohibiting black people from voting or living in white neighborhoods.
In fact, based on my research, the emancipations were actually designed to force black people and the federal government to pay reparations to slave owners – not slaves – thus ensuring that whites retained their advantages in the accumulation and transmission of wealth across generations.
Reparations to slave owners
The emancipations shared three common traits that, when added together, only freed slaves in one sense, but re-enslaved them in another sense.
The first, and arguably the most important, was the ideology of gradualism, which said that atrocities against black people would end slowly, over a long, indefinite period.
The second feature was state legislators who held firmly to the racist principle that emancipated people were property units of slave owners – not captives who had been victims of crimes against humanity.
The third was the insistence that black people had to incur various forms of debt to get out of slavery. This included economic debt, exacted by ongoing forced and underpaid labor that freed people had to pay to slave owners.
Essentially, freed people had to pay for their freedom, while slavers had to be paid to allow them to be free.
Myths and realities of emancipation
On March 1, 1780, for example, the Pennsylvania state legislature set a global precedent for how emancipations would pay reparations to slave owners and strengthen the system of white property rule.
The Pennsylvania Act for the Progressive Abolition of Slavery provided “that all persons, Negroes, Mulattoes and others alike, who shall be born in this State, from the passing of this Act, shall not be not reputed and considered life servants or slaves.
At the same time, the legislation prescribed “that every negro and mulatto child born in this State” could be held in servitude “until the age of twenty-eight years” and “likely to love correction and punishment” in as a slave.
After that first day of emancipation in Pennsylvania, slaves remained in bondage for the rest of their lives, unless voluntarily freed by slave owners.
Only infants of enslaved women were nominally free after Emancipation Day. Even then, these children were forced to serve as bonded laborers from infancy until their 28th birthday.
All future emancipations shared Pennsylvania’s DNA.
Emancipation Day arrived in Connecticut and Rhode Island on March 1, 1784. On July 4, 1799, it dawned in New York, and on July 4, 1804, in New Jersey. After 1838, West Indians in the United States began to commemorate Emancipation Day from the British Empire on August 1.
District of Columbia Day arrived on April 16, 1862.
Eight months later, on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves only in Confederate states – not in states loyal to the Union, such as New Jersey, Maryland , Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri.
Emancipation Day originated in Maryland on November 1, 1864. The following year, emancipation was granted on April 3 in Virginia, May 8 in Mississippi, May 20 in Florida, May 29 in Georgia , June 19 in Texas and August 8 in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Slavery by another name
After the Civil War, the three reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution each contained loopholes that contributed to the continued oppression of black communities.
The Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 authorized the enslavement of incarcerated persons through convict rentals.
The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 allowed incarcerated persons to be denied the right to vote.
And the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment failed to explicitly ban forms of voter suppression that targeted black voters and would intensify during the coming Jim Crow era.
In fact, Granger’s Order No. 3, June 19, 1865, made that clear.
The liberation of slaves, said the order, “implies an absolute equality of personal rights and property rights, between former masters and slaves, and the link hitherto existing between them has become that between employer and salaried work”.
Yet the order further states: “Released persons are advised to remain in their current homes and work for pay. They are informed that they will not be allowed to congregate at military posts; and that they will not be sustained in idleness either there or elsewhere.
The meaning of Juneteenth
From the start of emancipation celebrations on March 1, 1780 until June 19, 1865, black crowds gathered to demand redress for slavery.
In that first Juneteenth in Texas, and increasingly during those that followed, free people celebrated their resilience amid emancipation’s failure to bring full freedom.
They advocated for an end to debt bondage, racial policing and discriminatory laws that unfairly harmed black communities. They lifted their collective imagination out of the spiritual abyss of white property rule.
Over the decades, June 19 traditions have matured into larger gatherings in public parks, with barbecue picnics and firecrackers and street parades with marching bands.
At the end of his posthumously published 1999 novel, “Juneteenth,” black author Ralph Ellison called for a poignant question to be asked on Emancipation Day: “How the hell do we get love into the politics or compassion in history?
The question calls for pause as much today as ever.
Professor of History, Tufts University
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