“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”—Frederick Douglass—1852
It’s 1750. You’re naked, branded, head shaved. Crammed side by side in a low-ceilinged, bleak bottom hold among the living, the dying, the dead. The floor where you sleep is a soul cry of waste and blood and mucus, a suffocating charnel stench, and without the faintest breeze of relief. Day in, day out, men the pallor of ghosts gruff you onto the main deck, sponge you with saltwater, and command you to the greater misery of singing and dancing for them. It’s a world so grim you refuse to eat, hoping to starve yourself to the mercy of a last breath. But instead your blanched captors lash your back with cat-o’-nine tails till your skin flays and thin red rivers slide down your back. Or else they wedge your jaws wide with a speculum oris, and stuff it with mush till you cough and choke. Then they menace you back into the underworld, a dark tunnel filled with cries and moaning, filled with coughing and retching, filled with the pitter-patter of children’s feet splashing in sewage and the crash of leviathan waves roiling against the ship’s hull. One night, one of those God-fearing Europeans drags you to the main deck, rinses you, and mounts you against your will. He does it once. Does it twice. And so on. One of those times, he spills a new life into you, and what months ago might’ve been an utter joy sorrows you deeper. You wonder how to follow the others you’ve seen suicide-leap over nets into the ocean. But you never get the chance and even if you somehow did, you doubt you could be that brave. You’re somehow spared the measles, smallpox, dysentery, scurvy, and flu pocking and fevering in the hellish hold and arrive thin, tumid, and frightened on the shores of a strange new netherworld. They coffle you miles into a buzzing square, one filled with a gallery of white faces, their eyes eager, their eyes prodding. One of those men greases your lips with meat skin and drags you onto a platform. You terror in place while men pinch your arms and legs, snap your mouth wide to inspect your teeth the same way they would a horse. “Here’s a young ni**er wench. How much am I offered for her?” says an auctioneer, in a tongue you still can’t discern.
Any mention of celebrating the freedom of my people must begin with acknowledging the horror of chattel slavery in America. Historians date the advent of that horrific institution to the 20-odd Angolans who, on August 20, 1619, were disembarked from the English privateer ship the White Lion at Point Comfort, Virginia, and were bartered for food with some of the British colonists of Jamestown. Any mention of emancipation must also acknowledge the plight of the 400,000 humans that were captured and sailed from their homeland to this supposed locus of liberty and justice during the centuries-long genocide known as the Middle Passage.
That passage was the wicked genesis for what would manifold into an estimated four million enslaved women, men, and children. For damn near 250 years, those enslaved humans stooped sun up to sunset over cash crops of tobacco, sugar, king cotton. Were subject to the most brutal lashings. Raped at whim. Their children cleaved from them and sold to places unknown. Forbidden to read. Forbidden to step a foot off their enslaver’s property without a pass. They themselves were considered chattel, were compromised by the “founding fathers” into three-fifths of a human being, and later were deemed owning “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Never forget, their rapacious white enslavers kept right on seizing the whole natural lives of their African skinfolk even after the U.S. Congress outlawed the cruel business of importing them in 1807.
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, freeing enslaved persons who had masters in the Confederate Army. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, begrudging my people their legal freedom as part of a package deal to save his beloved Union. Those two events were crucial to fortifying Union forces and helped bring the Civil War to a close, in the storied Battle of Appomattox Court House, on April 9, 1865. In the meantime, though, enslavers in Mississippi, Louisiana, and other Confederate states fled with humans they considered their chattel for Texas, a state that afforded them greater chances of escaping the Union’s reach. That dark exodus (all told, 150,000 enslaved people), initiated by those who paid Old Abe’s proclamation no damn nevermind, included processions so large that some witnesses described them as the second coming of the Middle Passage.
As a result, there were 250,000 enslaved humans living in Texas in 1865, none of whom knew that the president of this riven republic had granted them their freedom more than two years prior. There are prominent theories as to why that was the case. One of them is that, in general, the news crawled along in those days. Others argue that the messengers carrying the proclamation to Texas was murdered en route to keep them from delivering it. Yet another notable theory of why it took nearly 30 months for Lincoln’s writ to reach the Lone Star State was that the federal government delayed sending the announcement so plantation owners could reap one last cotton harvest with free labor.
While all those reasons might be in part true, it seems the most feasible answer is that there were less than adequate means of enforcing the proclamation in rebel states before the end of the war.
Be that as it may, on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at the Port of Galveston, Texas. He assumed command of the Department of Texas and the almost 2,000 members of the 13th Army Corps who were present, and with those blue-coated Union soldiers, he marched through Galveston reading the now historic General Orders, No. 3:
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.
Granger and his men read the then assassinated president’s order at an antebellum home in the center of town, at their Union headquarters, at the Custom House, at the courthouse, at the local AME Church, and, in time, at the farther-flung properties of enslavers. Their audiences were sometimes stupefied to silence over freedom that must’ve seemed chimeric, but were more often animated into hoots and hollers and hallelujahs. Some waited, as was advised, to learn of the new employer-employee relationship. But there were also a number of freed people who grabbed whatever they could carry and, with the quickness, footed right off their plantations. That mass leaving became known as “the scatter.” Those who opted for that alacritous pursuit of freedom faced peril. Some of them were caught on roads and beaten or bushwhacked or lynched. “You could see lots of ni**ers hanging from trees,” said Susan Merritt, a woman freed during that time. Flake’s Daily Bulletin (a Galveston paper published by an abolitionist) reported more than 20 dead Blacks drifting down the Brazos River around the time of "the scattering."
In fact, from mid-1865 through early 1866, Texas authorities issued 500 indictments for the murder of Blacks.
Even after Granger and the blue coats galloped into Galveston, scores of should’ve-been-freed Blacks were hoodwinked into working months or even years more for their enslavers; victims of, among other factors, the state’s large size, and the obstinance and audacity of its lost-cause racists, as well as a lack of enough Union troops to enforce the order. In one instance, the enslaved people of a horse thief named Alex Simpson weren’t freed until the man was hanged in 1868.
Many of those who escaped with their lives ciceroned after the North Star. But some set off on searches for family members, which took them to places that included Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arkansas.
Those freed Texans first commemorated their emancipation on January 1, 1866, choosing New Year’s Day because it aligned with jubilations in other states that marked their freedom, not with General Orders, No. 3, but with the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Those early Galveston festivities featured a thousand-strong procession of men, women, and children; a church service with spirited song; a reading of the old proclamation; speeches and barbecue feasts, and Black folks dressed in their finest frippery. In the intervening years, Texans marked their independence with the June 19th date of General Granger’s order, inaugurating Juneteenth, a day now acknowledged as the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of legal slavery in the U.S. Those revelers had to move their socializing to the banks of rivers and lakes because burgeoning Jim Crow laws left them without public venues. Nonetheless, in 1872, enterprising local leaders raised $1000, purchased a 10-acre plot of land in Houston, and built their own public space: Emancipation Park.
Fueled by both the freed people who stayed and those who ventured elsewhere and carried their nascent customs with them, the tradition of celebrating Juneteenth spread all over the country. It waned over time, though, as people who were alive for Granger’s reading passed away, and the unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction and the truth of Jim Crow life rubbed the luster off their proposed freedoms, leaving instead their dim actual liberties. The commemoration regained favor during the civil rights movement, when Ralph Abernathy (in the stead of the assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) led The Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., on June 19, 1968, and those Black participants, people from all over the country, trucked home inspired.
Present-day Juneteenth traditions vary across states, but often feature red soda pop and barbecues; parades and picnics and performances; speeches and spirituals. They have also grown to include, in some cases, a rodeo or a baseball game or a plane flyover. At present, 47 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or a day of observance, and more than and 200 cities have some form of an official celebration.
Texas, as it should’ve been, was the first state to honor the date as an official holiday when the then freshman State Rep. Al Edwards authored and introduced a bill that became law in 1980. In what's an apparent affront, the holiday has been given only partial status, i.e., some state offices maintain reduced hours and staffing. In what's yet another bald-faced political slight, Congress has still not passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This failure persists despite President Obama’s cosponsored legislation way back when he was a U.S. senator, as well as supporting it during both terms of his presidency.
Without doubt, Juneteenth should be a federal holiday. It’s hypocritical for this nation to acknowledge the Fourth of July and not Juneteenth. There were more than 500,000 enslaved Black people at the time Jefferson penned, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If those words aren’t the utmost hypocrisy to people of African descent in this country, then please tell me what is? To deny Juneteenth official federal recognition is another dishonoring of the contributions of Black people, one that proves yet again how America has failed to achieve its founding principles.
There just ain’t no gainsaying the contribution of the people who descended from those captured Africans. What and where would America be without the billions of dollars in stolen labor? At the outset of the Civil War, the Confederacy was producing 75 percent of the world’s cotton. Had it been its own nation, it would have ranked as the fourth richest in the world. Matter of fact, at the time of that great battle over the right to enslave my people, there were more millionaires in the Mississippi River valley than anywhere in the country. Not to mention, the wealth realized in other industries from uncountable hours of coerced free labor; the boom of cotton mills in the American north and Europe; the rapid growth of the shipping industry; and the banks in New York and London that made beaucoup dollars loaning money so the enslavers could buy more land to harvest more cotton. And since the enslaved were legislated into legal property, and transactions of them taxed, state and local governments also reaped economic rewards . . . and on and on.
Juneteenth is bigger than a state holiday. It is a national occasion to emphasize the contributions of Blacks in this land since before white men called it their country. It’s a long past-due gesture for a nation that has proved unwilling to provide rightful reparations for a malevolent 250-year theft.
Because it’s 1911 in Okemah, Oklahoma, and, under the eyes of a sheriff, men hunt your cabin for evidence of stolen meat. You notice your 14-year-old boy holding a gun, and in struggling with the sheriff for possession of it, it goes off and kills him. Later, a zealous posse seizes you and your son from the county jail, wagons you miles outside of town, and hangs you both from a bridge—and even memorializes the lynching in a postcard. Because it’s 1957 and you’re a teenage girl in Little Rock, Arkansas, and dressed in a light-colored, buttoned-down shirt, a long skirt, and tinted glasses for your first day in a new high school. You arrive and courage—a book squeezed to your chest—through a shouting mob, but are soon met with a skirmish line of National Guard barring your entrance. Because it’s 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and you’re a schoolgirl chatting in the basement bathroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Then BOOM!, an explosion of dynamite lifts you off your feet and tumbles the walls and ceiling on top of you. Because it’s 1965 in Selma, Alabama, and you’re a coed marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge with 600 other spirited demonstrators when you see a wall of scowling state troopers standing shoulder to shoulder. While a crowd of white folks seethes and cheers, those troopers charge you with their clubs and sticks drawn, and shoot canisters of tear gas in your midst. One of those brutal officers cudgels you in the head and knocks you unconscious. Because it’s 1984 in the Bronx, New York, and you’re an old woman suffering mental health struggles when six of New York's finest storm your project apartment to evict you—men armed with a restraining bar, bulletproof vests, gas masks, and a 12-gauge shotgun. You grab a butcher knife to confront the intruders, and one of them, so fast it must be instinct, shoots you once in the hand and once in the chest, killing you. Because it’s 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky, and you’re a young woman cradled in the peace of sleep beside your boyfriend, when a trio of plainclothes cops battle-ram into your home on a no-knock search warrant, a ruckus that spooks your boyfriend into firing a warning shot. Those quick-triggered cops return that warning with a barrage, riddling you and every last one of your dreams dead.
Call it Juneteenth. Call it Emancipation Day. Call it Freedom Day.
But you are not free.
And you are not free.
And we are not free.
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