Juneteenth, Black Texans and the Case for Reparations

Article excerpt

Introduction

In June of 2001 this writer, with several others, sponsored the first Juneteenth extravaganza in Lafayette, Indiana. In the days leading up to the festivities, television and local newspaper coverage recounted the history of Juneteenth. Prior to that summer many Tippecanoe County residents had undoubtedly never heard of Juneteenth.

The history of Juneteenth, slavery, and deferred freedom is filled with heroes, plots and interesting twists. For many of African descent, Juneteenth is a day to commemorate the official ending of American slavery. Over the past ten years the number of cities and communities that have hosted Juneteenth activities has grown. Three of the largest Juneteenth celebrations (outside of Texas) occur in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Tulsa. (Struby, 2002). Even the Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum have Juneteenth activities. In Texas, Juneteenth is indelibly etched into the political and cultural history of the state. Legislators there made it an official state holiday in 1980.

Slavery did not end with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Not until June 19, 1865 was slavery abolished - two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the landmark mandate on January 1, 1863. It declared freedom for Confederate slaves in all areas that were still in rebellion against the Union. The proclamation allowed for the use of blacks' in the Union Army and Navy, aiding the North's ability to achieve victory in the war.

Events Leading up to the Proclamation

The eleven states of the Confederacy seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861. They seceded primarily because they feared that the President would restrict their right to choose slavery. The North, however, entered the Civil War to reunite the nation, not to end slavery.

During the first half of the war, abolitionists and several Union military leaders encouraged Lincoln to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves. Lincoln agreed with the abolitionists' position on slavery. He once declared that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong" (Young, 1994). But early in the war, Lincoln believed that if he freed the slaves, he would divide the North. Lincoln feared that four slave-owning border states-Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri-would secede if he adopted the policy.

In July 1862, with the war going badly for the North, Congress passed a law freeing all slaves from the Confederacy who came into Union lines. At about that same time, Lincoln changed his position on slavery. So that his decision would not appear to be a desperate act, Lincoln waited for a Union victory.

On September 22, 1862, five days after Union forces won the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation that demanded that the rebelling states return to the Union by January 1, 1863, or their slaves would be declared "forever free". The South rejected Lincoln's policy, hence he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, calling it a "fit and necessary" war measure.

Blacks in Texas, however, remained in bondage until 1865. On the 19th of June 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were at last free. General Order Number 3 read by Granger stated:

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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

Blacks greeted the news with the overwhelming joy that accompanies receiving the answer to a life-long prayer. As Felix Haywood remembered it, "Everyone was singing. We was all walking on golden clouds. Hallelujah!" According to Lu Lee, a fellow slave on her place called out "Free, free my Lord. …

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