By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021 but has been celebrated by African Americans for well over a century. It celebrates the day the last of the enslaved Blacks in Confederate states were freed from chattel slavery. Like much of Black history, the holiday has been passed down through the oral tradition.
However, some of the history has been lost in translation.
The story of June 19, 1865, or “Juneteenth,” is often told as the story of Union troops marching into Galveston Bay, Texas, to announce to the slaves that — unbeknownst to them — they had been freed two years prior.
The idea that enslaved Blacks in Texas didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation is not historically accurate.
Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard historian and author of “On Juneteenth,” said in an interview with the Kansas City Public Library that it was not a matter of the slaves not knowing, it’s just nothing could be done about it (other than escaping to the North and other slave rebellions that had long been happening).
“The enslaved folks in Texas knew about the Emancipation Proclamation but there was not much that could be done about it as long as the Confederates were still putting up a fight,” she said. “It could not really take effect until Union troops were there in place.”
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in January 1863 and the Civil War continued until April 1865 — Juneteenth followed two months later. Looking at the timeline, the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented in Southern states shortly after it was feasible, as it could be enforced only after Union troops took control of Southern territory.
Even though President Abraham Lincoln issued the most famous executive order with the Emancipation Proclamation, it wasn’t enforceable in Southern states as they were still under the control of the Confederacy until the war’s end. During the Civil War, the Confederate States of America operated as its own country. It had its own president, constitution and laws; the laws of Lincoln didn’t apply to them.
After the proclamation was signed, the Confederacy continued to write policies regarding enslaved Blacks. Confederate President Jefferson Davis in March 1865 signed the “Negro Soldier Law,” which would allow enslaved Blacks to fight with Confederate troops pending the consent of their owners and the state. The war ended the next month, so it didn’t have a substantial impact.
The American Civil War Was About Slavery
The war was not fought to end slavery. The end of chattel slavery was a byproduct necessary for the Union to win. It also wasn’t about states’ rights.
The Civil War was waged by wealthy slaveholders whose desire to expand the institution drove them to secede from the Union. The South feared the end of slavery was inevitable if they remained; this is made explicitly clear in the Confederate constitution and several Southern states’ declarations of secession.
The North felt it was unconstitutional for a state to secede, so it fought to preserve the Union.
The United States was rapidly growing in the 19th century, which resulted in ongoing policy clashes as each new state was an opportunity to grow the economy of either region. The South’s economy was reliant on slavery and the North’s industrial factories. Each needed real estate, in the form of land, to expand their political influence and fund their way of life.
W.E.B. DuBois, Harvard historian and NAACP co-founder, wrote in his 1935 book “Black Reconstruction in America,” that 7% of the South’s population in 1860 owned nearly 3 million of the approximately 4 million slaves in the country.
“This meant that in a country predominantly agricultural, the ownership of labor, land and capital was extraordinarily concentrated,” DuBois wrote. “Such a peculiar organization of industry would have to be carefully reconciled with the new industrial and political democracy of the nineteenth century if it were to survive.”
Contentious admissions of new states spawned federal laws, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
The Fugitive Slave Act was a concession made to slaveholding states when California entered the Union as a free state. It required free states and the federal government to return runaways to their owners. The law would later play a key role in the road to emancipation.
Quiet As It’s Kept, Lincoln Held Racist Beliefs
Lincoln condemned the institution of slavery in 1854 during a failed campaign for Congress, but in the same breath said that, if emancipated, Blacks should be deported to Africa.
In “A People’s History of the United States,” historian Howard Zinn writes that when Lincoln ran for the Senate in 1858, he played to whatever base was listening.
“Lincoln spoke differently depending on the views of his listeners,” Zinn writes. “And also perhaps depending on how close it was to the election.”
In northern Illinois in July 1858, he said that all men are equal. Two months later in Charleston, South Carolina, he said Blacks shouldn’t have the right to vote, shouldn’t be jurors, spoke against interracial marriage, and said Blacks were generally inferior.
Despite Lincoln’s best efforts to pander to slaveholding states, when he was elected president in November 1860, the South began to secede.
Lincoln’s initial strategy to preserve the Union was to reassure the South that existing slavery was protected, which is reflected in his March 1861 inaugural address where he committed to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.
“One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not be extended,” Lincoln said. “This is the only substantial dispute. … The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation [of the Fugitive Slave Act] in both cases.”
In the New York Times bestseller “Stamped From the Beginning,” author Ibram X. Kendi discusses why it was so important for the Union to be preserved.
“South Carolina’s secession from the United States did not just mean the loss of a state, and soon a region, but loss of the region’s land and wealth,” he writes. He goes on to explain that the South had millions of acres of land worth more than the almost 4 million enslaved Blacks toiling its soil.
Blacks Fought To End Slavery
For Black troops, the war always was about ending slavery. By escaping to the North, they forced Lincoln’s hand to policies that led to emancipation. However the work didn’t stop there, Blacks then sacrificed their lives to win the war.
But first, they had to overcome the North’s anti-Black racism — the Union had no plans to end slavery.
Blacks escaped to the North by the thousands in the summer of 1861 only to be returned due to the Fugitive Slave Act, Kendi said. Congress then doubled-down; in July 1861, they passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, which reiterated the institution of slavery was not in jeopardy.
When the North lost the first major battle in July 1861, it was clear they had to try something different. With the fate of the Union on the line, the North put slavery on the table. The Fugitive Slave Act was repealed by the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862; the first allowed them to seize Confederate assets (including slaves) and the second declared said property free.
It was now possible for escaped Blacks to fight — Lincoln threatened to take this a step further. He created a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 which said if rebel states didn’t surrender within the next four months, he’d free the slaves.
But the South didn’t put down their arms. So in January 1863 Lincoln declared all persons held as slaves in the rebellious states were henceforward free. The Proclamation didn’t apply to slave-holding states that hadn’t seceded from the Union; those enslaved Blacks would later be freed by the 13th Amendment.
Black troops quickly found the North was just as racist as the South. Zinn gives an example of the anti-Black violence.
“Off-duty Black soldiers were attacked in northern cities, as in Zanesville, Ohio, in February 1864, where cries were heard to ‘kill the nigger,’” he writes. “Black soldiers were used for the heaviest and dirtiest work. … White privates received $13 a month; Negro privates received $10 a month.”
The second all-Black infantry was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, formed a month after the Emancipation Proclamation. Depicted onscreen in the 1989 historical war drama “Glory,” the infantry was exploited by white commanders who sent them to pillage civilians, as evident in the June 1863 raid on Darien.
They eventually would see combat in the failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863. Nearly half of the men were wounded, captured, or killed, according to Kendi.
They may have lost the battle, but they won the confidence of the nation.
In “The Cause of Freedom,” author and Rutgers University President Jonathan Scott Holloway writes that the battle etched Blacks into history.
“The regiment was badly outmanned and outgunned,” Holloway writes. “The bravery of the regiment [served] as a powerful testament to African Americans’ commitment to the Union and their desire to lay claim to the respect owed to a nation’s citizens.”
The Confederate States of America would surrender to the Union on April 9, 1865. Two months later on June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and more than 2,000 soldiers marched into Galveston Bay, Texas, and announced to more than 250,000 enslaved Blacks that the Confederacy had fallen and slavery had ended. The 13th Amendment was ratified Dec. 6, 1865, officially abolishing slavery in the United States (except in prison) and setting the stage for Reconstruction — a hopeful yet uncertain time.
Holloway reports that more than 175,000 Black men, about 10% of the Union army, served in the American Civil War — one of the bloodiest wars to date at the time. Black women also played a pivotal role in the war, with ex-slave Sojourner Truth recruiting Black men for battle and Harriet Tubman leading troops into combat.
The perseverance of these Black folks remains unmatched. It was their determination, emboldened by self-worth, that challenged not only the Confederacy but also the Union. They are definitely a reason to celebrate.