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Juneteenth

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Today is Juneteenth, which commemorates the final official emancipation of African-descended people from racial slavery in the United States on this day (June 19) in 1865. Far more than the 4th of July, Juneteenth speaks to and celebrates a radically capacious vision and realization of liberty and freedom. Clint Smith is right:

Bouie had a good post about the holiday from a few years ago that is worth reading if you’re unfamiliar:

Officially, the Emancipation Proclamation freed “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State” where the residents were “in rebellion against the United States.” In practice, it applied only to those slaves who lived near Union lines, where they could make an easy escape or take advantage of the Northern advance.

News of emancipation would move slowly, which would be compounded by the mass migration of slave owners, who fled their holdings in Louisiana and Mississippi—slaves in tow—following the Union victories at New Orleans in 1862 and Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863. Tens of thousands of slaves arrived in Texas, joining the hundreds of thousands in the interior of the state, where they were isolated from most fighting and any news of the war. Indeed, Union attempts to occupy Texas were limited to the coastlines—far from the densest slave populations—or repelled before they had a chance to succeed.

As such, for the next two years, slaves and slave holders lived at a far remove from the events of the eastern United States, including the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865. Yes, it ended the war, but it didn’t end the conflict, as fighting continued on the far borders of the Confederacy. And so, when Gen. Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, on June 19 to lead the Union occupation force, he wasn’t just faced with Confederate remnants (the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, for example, had surrendered only a month prior); he had to deal with ongoing slavery in defiance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

To fix the situation, he issued an order:

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.

This proclamation would form the basis for June the Nineteenth or “Juneteenth,” a holiday celebrating the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas.

I say announcement because it would be a stretch to say this freed the slaves of Texas. There, as elsewhere in the South, attempts to act on this freedom were met with violence from former slave owners and other angry whites. “There is much evidence to suggest that southern whites—especially Confederate parolees—perpetrated more acts of violence against newly freed bondspeople in Texas than in other states,” writes historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner in an essay titled “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory.” “Between the Neches and Sabine rivers and north to Henderson,” she continues, “reports showed that blacks continued in a form of slavery, intimidated by former Confederate soldiers still in uniform and bearing arms.” Murder, lynching, and harassment were common. “You could see lots of Negroes hanging from trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom,” reported one freed slave, “They would catch them swimming across Sabine River and shoot them.”

But neither violence nor the sheer size of Texas could stop emancipation from rolling across the landscape. And as it did, freed slaves began to commemorate and celebrate the event, both as an occasion for jubilee and as an act of defiance toward unreconstructed Confederates and other whites who maintained their grip on power in the state.

The first public Juneteenth events occurred in 1866, preceding any similar commemoration of the Confederacy legacy in Texas. At these events, former slaves read the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation—subversively honoring Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator at a time when white Texans saw the slain president as the destroyer of Southern “freedom”—sang spirituals, held games, and celebrated freedom.

It hardly even seems worth noting what someone more literate than Donald Trump who works in his office has to say about the holiday, but here’s the statement: 

Of course, the Trump administration is actually celebrating Juneteenth by, as historian Tera Hunter pointed out a few weeks ago, replicating some of the absolute worst and most traumatic aspects of slavery.

I hope that all who celebrate ingenuously (as opposed to the White House statement) enjoy the day. Even in (or perhaps even more so in) these times when everything seems pretty awful, it’s worth celebrating critical human achievements such as this.

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