Juneteenth and the end of slavery

Juneteenth is being celebrated by demanding that all the continuing remnants of slavery, in the form of broad inequality faced by African Americans on all fronts and police violence and mass incarceration be eliminated. People of all nationalities and backgrounds together continue to affirm their convictions for new arrangements and their own empowerment, through protests as well as other forms of resistance.

By Dougal MacDonald

June 19, 1865 or Juneteenth (also known as Freedom Day) is celebrated across the United States in appreciation of the vital contributions made by African Americans in emancipating the four million people enslaved by the system of slave labour and in carrying forward the fight for justice and equality before and since the U.S. Civil War. Recent actions across the U.S. salute the determined and undaunted resistance to police violence, government impunity, and demands for accountability and for change that favours the people.

June 19, 1865 was the day when all the people still enslaved at the end of the Civil War gained their freedom. While hundreds of thousands of those enslaved fought in the Civil War to end the system of slave labour, many remained in bondage even after the war ended, such as in Texas, until Union soldiers arrived in Galveston on June 19, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, to tell everyone that all those enslaved had won their freedom. Celebrations immediately broke out and Juneteenth has been celebrated in states south and north, east and west with a resurgence and broadening of events during the 1960s and since.

Black people played a decisive role in winning their emancipation and defeating the slave owners. They carried out numerous mass insurrectionary movements on the plantations before and during the war. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx long advocated bringing Black people south and north into the Army but President Lincoln initially refused. Those enslaved organized mass actions to escape the plantations and reach Union lines, joining the fight in various ways. In 1862, even before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Black people formed their own armed militias to battle enslavement in Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and South Carolina — regiments later integrated into the Union Army. The “U.S. Coloured Troops” were officially formed in the spring of 1863 which brought more than 180,000 people freed from enslavement and northern Black people into the Army. Another 29,000 served in the Navy and many more joined the fight by securing supplies, undermining plantations, providing information and so forth. Black soldiers participated in about 200 battles of the war and were known for their courage and fighting abilities, their lives sacrificed at a rate 35 per cent higher than other troops.

107th Coloured Troops, Ft. Woodbury, Arlington County, Virginia, November 1, 1865.

The millions of people who won liberation from enslavement faced a huge social challenge. People literally had to rebuild their lives from the ground up, including rejecting names given by the slave masters and adopting new ones. They owned no property, no homes, no land, no farm animals, no implements and few clothes. They were largely illiterate as it was a crime to teach those enslaved to read and write. For many, their lives had been restricted to the plantations they worked on and perhaps to surrounding ones. They had been largely excluded from political life, but had organized resistance through churches, song and the Underground Railroad. Given this, their progress right after the war was extraordinary. They militantly faced the opposition of the still powerful former slave owners who wanted to keep them in bondage and exploit them. This included their resistance to white supremacist terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (1865), formed to split the working class, spread terror and maintain the people in thrall.

A school at the Freedmen’s Village in Arlington, Virginia, providing education for African American children and adults who escaped enslavement in Confederate states, 1862.

Liberation of the millions of enslaved people and defeat of the system of slave labour gave rise to major battles for democracy during the Reconstruction period of 1865-1877. People formerly enslaved alongside poor farmers, including many women, joined in demanding representation in their interests, the right to be equal members of the polity, including voting rights. Whole communities were built and debates on state constitutions raged as people came forward south and north to advance the fight for democracy unleashed by the defeat of the system of slave labour. A better future was fought for. But as W.E.B. Dubois put it, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Former slave owners, commonly Democrats, gradually regained power in Southern legislatures with assistance from the federal government, the formation of the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans, and through terrorism, violence, disruption, outright voter fraud, and other forms of intimidation. In 1876, the presidential election was disputed and a compromise was necessary to preserve the union. Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote but Electoral College votes were in dispute. In 1877 Congress arranged the compromise, with troops withdrawn from the south and former slave owners permitted to regain their plantations while Rutherford B. Hayes was selected for president. White Democrats now held political power in every Southern state and they swiftly turned back the clock using the KKK, mass arrests and legislating “Jim Crow” and other laws, officially segregating Black people and forcing many back on the plantations as sharecroppers. By 1905, nearly all Black men were effectively disenfranchised by state legislatures in every Southern state, with federal government support.

March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Almost 90 years later, Jim Crow laws, lynching and KKK terrorism remained widespread until the mass movements of the 1950s and ’60s which achieved desegregation in many respects and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But KKK violence remained and other forms of inequality and genocide took place, such as mass incarceration. From Jim Crow to the present day, Black people have continued to fight for their rights through their organizations, in the law courts, in legislatures and other government bodies, through the arts, socially active churches, mass protests and through armed self-defence against the racist violence of the state and its clandestine white supremacist organizations. To give one example, in June 1961 in Monroe, North Carolina, Black leader Robert F. Williams and his allies organized armed self-defence against the Ku Klux Klan who wanted to prevent desegregation of a swimming pool. Williams was forced into exile by the U.S. government until 1969. He later explained: “I advocated violent self-defence because I don’t really think you can have a defence against violent racists and against terrorists unless you are prepared to meet violence with violence, and my policy was to meet violence with violence.” The Black Panthers and Malcolm X also called for armed self-defence.

A key issue regarding the criminal legacy of slavery is the demand for reparations. Many recognize that the inequalities faced by Black people in the U.S. today are directly attributable to slavery and continued state-sanctioned discrimination. Some suggest history would have been different if the federal government had followed through on the legislation and promises of Reconstruction for land and defended the political power fought for by poor whites and Blacks, men and women alike. As it does today, at that time the federal government acted to block democracy by disempowering the people. This occurred in part by allowing former slave owners to reclaim their land, which was supposed to be given to people formerly enslaved and by organizing decades of state-sanctioned oppression and violence. While some cases for slavery reparations have been won at local levels, such as Georgetown University, the demand is for a federal reparations law addressing not only compensation for individuals but collectives and communities as well. Reparations and a formal apology for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on the African peoples who were enslaved and their descendants is the just demand of today.

In the face of the growing demand for reparations, in 2019 on Juneteenth the United States House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing with the stated purpose “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.” Since Washington and Jefferson and sixteen other U.S. presidents owned slaves, and since some of the richest families in the U.S. such as the Cabots profited handsomely from the slave trade, much of the talk has been highly hypocritical. Various African American organizations have been fighting on the issue, including holding town hall meetings. As well, the issue has been taken to the UN. In 2016 the UN called on the U.S. to pay reparations for slavery. Its report brought out that “compensation is necessary to combat the disadvantages caused by 245 years of legally allowing the sale of people based on the colour of their skin.”

One part of the current resistance is the tearing down of symbols and statues glorifying slavery and commemorating slave traders and owners. For example, the statue of slave owner Philip Schuyler was removed from outside Albany City Hall. Statues of various Confederate leaders have also been removed due to their connection with slavery, for example, a Confederate memorial statue was removed in Portsmouth, Virginia. There are also calls for new statues to be raised in their place to celebrate those who fought against slavery rather than those who enriched themselves from it.

Sign at Juneteenth car caravan in Oakland, California, June 19, 2020.

Across the U.S., actions that started on May 26, 2020 to demand justice for the police killing of George Floyd continue, as organized resistance emerges to take its place. In Minneapolis where Floyd was killed and across the country, calls for justice in numerous cases of police brutality and killings, especially of African Americans, ring out. Calls also demand profound changes to policing that will not permit the people to be victimized by a militarized force that does not represent their interests. It is no coincidence that the police forces in the South were first created to protect the system of slave labour, such as slave patrols to catch those who had escaped their enslavement.

Juneteenth is being celebrated by saluting these many actions and demanding that all the continuing remnants of slavery, in the form of broad inequality faced by African Americans on all fronts and police violence and mass incarceration be eliminated. People of all nationalities and backgrounds together continue to affirm their convictions for new arrangements and their own empowerment, through protests as well as other forms of resistance.

Juneteenth 2020 actions across the U.S.

(Photos: New York Public Library, U.S. National Archives, People’s Organization for Progress, O. Jimenez, S. Levee, J. Rogers, T. Hawthorne, Tacoma DSA, B. Jourdan, R. Adams)



Juneteenth and the End of Slavery

Brief History of Juneteenth

– Juneteenth.com –

Juneteenth celebration in Richmond, Virginia, 1905.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the civil war had ended and that the enslaved people were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texans in part due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labour force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation… Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question. For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

General Order Number 3

One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:

“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.”

The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former “masters.” Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighbouring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for Black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

Juneteenth Festivities and Food

A range of activities were provided, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self-improvement. Thus, often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. […]

Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors — the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations.

Food was abundant because everyone prepared a special dish. Meats such as lamb, pork and beef which were not available everyday were brought on this special occasion. A true Juneteenth celebration left visitors well satisfied and with enough conversation to last until the next.

Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition’s roots. During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former “slavemasters.”

Juneteenth and Society

In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community for participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by [the government] barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues. Often church grounds were the site for such activities.

Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Reverend Jack Yates. This fund-raising effort yielded $1,000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898. There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by white landowners demanding that their labourers return to work. However, it seems most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. For decades these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans once flowed through during the course of a week, making the celebration one of the state’s largest. […]

The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled some of the African American youth away from such celebrations and into the struggle for racial equality, many others linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960s, who wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor People’s March on Washington, DC. Reverend Ralph Abernathy called for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many participants returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activity. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. [Cities like Buffalo have one of the largest celebrations and have done so since 1975.]

Texas Blazes the Trail

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration given official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across the U.S.

Today, Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, a number of local and national Juneteenth organizations have arisen to take their place alongside older organizations — all with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.

Juneteenth today celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. As it takes on a more national, symbolic and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing.

The future of Juneteenth looks bright as the number of cities and states creating Juneteenth committees continues to increase. Respect and appreciation for all of our differences grow out of exposure and working together. Getting involved and supporting Juneteenth celebrations creates new bonds of friendship and understanding among us. This indeed, brightens our future — and that is the Spirit of Juneteenth.

[On June 16, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 415-14 to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday, following a unanimous vote in favour in the Senate on June 15. It was signed into law by the president on June 17. It is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983. — Ed. Note]

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