Juneteenth and National New Beginnings

Monday, Jun 29, 2020

Juneteenth and National New Beginnings

“Soldiers, all of a sudden, was everywhere ⎯ comin’ in bunches, crossin’ and walkin’ and ridin’. Everyone was a-singin. We was all walkin’ on golden clouds. Hallejujah!” This is how Felix Haywood recalled the arrival of Brigadier General Gordon Granger, as he rode into Galveston, Texas, with his troops on June 19th, 1865. Granger announced General Orders No. 3 declaring that "in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."

Haywood described the fervor of fellow African Americans: “Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free.” The crowd’s glee would quickly dissipate as the sober reality set in that the order would require significant force to implement. It would take months for those enslaved in the interior of the state to get the word and a full year before all could publicly celebrate the demolition of the last Confederate holdout. Starting in 1866, that day of Jubilee would become a festive annual occasion for political speeches and church sermons extolling the virtues of citizenship duties and rights, accompanied by music and food. Since the 1890s, the day has been called “Juneteenth,” an abbreviation of June nineteenth.

Granger’s announcement was a remarkable event, though noteworthy for coming late and being ferociously resisted. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the Confederate states still in rebellion in January 1863. In truth, very few people were freed as the proclamation applied mainly to those places where federal authority had been nullified. But the prospects for freedom were least likely to be achieved in the westernmost state of the Confederacy that had escaped much military penetration. It’s isolation made it a haven for slaveholders from Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri seeking refuge when their own states were invaded.

The reigns of slavery were tightened even more in the lone star state as they were losing their grip and deteriorating elsewhere in the South.  From the beginning of the war women, men, and children ran away to Union lines in droves; many of the rest left behind on plantations turned them into unruly sites of de facto liberty; and black men enlisted as soldiers in the U.S. military in large numbers after Lincoln’s proclamation. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, put the final nail in the coffin of bondage enabling Lincoln’s promissory note to be realized, in most places.

But not in Texas. While some slaveholders conceded to Granger’s announcement immediately, many others refused. Confederate soldiers returned home in uniforms, armed and ready to retaliate with violence against black people who dared to exercise their new rights.  

According to testimony in hearings conducted by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in Congress, gruesome events like the following were commonplace. An officer of a U. S. Colored Troops regiment testified that Lucy Grimes was “taken into the woods” by two men “and there stripped and beaten until she died.” She had enraged “Mrs. Grimes,” the woman who formerly claimed to be her owner. Lucy refused to whip her own child who had been falsely accused of stealing money. “Mrs. Grimes” then sent for two men to fetch Lucy. They bruised her naked body with multiple strikes by a whip and crushed her skull with a club. Other black people were lynched, bodies hung on trees, for the crime of fleeing to freedom.

White Texans rejected the legitimacy of emancipation so violently hoping that slavery would be restored or, at least, the federal government would compensate them for the loss of wealth in human chattel.  As historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner has argued: “The war may have not have brought a great deal of bloodshed to Texas, but the peace certainly did.”

White allies in the federal government also rained on the parade of black freedom in Texas.  Granger’s order included caveats and warnings: “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.”

Federal agents were as much concerned about maintaining social order among blacks and restoring the plantation economy as they were in finalizing the war. Granger was either unaware or unmoved by black ingenuity and valor, on and off the battlefields, that had disproven dreaded fears of dependency. Instead, he urged Black Texans to sit tight and to not prioritize pulling their families back together that had been broken apart. And, above all, get back to work under the same management.

The history of how emancipation came to be in Texas in 1865 was convoluted and the road ahead was unknowable, but African Americans like Haywood focused on the remarkable feat of what they had already achieved after centuries of enslavement. As Texans moved along the grid patterns of the Great Migration in the twentieth century, they carried their celebrations of freedom along with the hopes it engendered for securing full citizenship rights. Junetenth is now marked in nearly every state and even in some places abroad.

Juneteenth has always been a reminder about the larger meaning of the Civil War, the democratic promise of Reconstruction that was cut short in the aftermath, and the reinforcement of democratic values, however circumscribed. As W. E. B. DuBois remarked in his magisterial study Black Reconstruction: “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” It is that forward movement and backwards again pattern that has dogged the realization of racial equality that we are grappling with once again.

This year’s commemoration is especially poignant in the midst of an unprecedented multi-racial, multi-generation insurgent social justice movement. The videotape incident of police officers crushing and suffocating a subdued George Floyd sparked the fires, but many other forms of racial inequality have come under attack. Confederate monuments are once again being toppled by protestors or taken down by officials because they are symbols of a Lost Cause ideology that flagrantly touts white supremacy through the funds raised to erect them by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, in the inscriptions carved in steel and stone, and in the bigoted speeches given at their dedications, long after the war was over. We will never be at peace as a nation as long as false idols to history are allowed to stand and we fail to reckon with the truth of slavery and its stubborn legacies in attitudes, practices, and policies that live on today.

Juneteenth is the sign of a new beginning. It marked the “second founding,” at its inception in 1866, as a renewal of the declarations and commitments made at the first founding that have never been fully squared. We are at another crossroads in the nation. The direction we choose to take at the ballot box, in the streets, in the boardrooms, in places of worship, in the mom and pop shops, in schools, in police stations, in governmental bodies at all levels, in our health care institutions, and in media will determine the extent and shape of democracy for coming generations. Long may the struggle persevere until justice for all prevails.

[Originally published on June 19, 2020 by ESSENCE]

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