Juneteenth Is About Freedom
Today, as we celebrate Juneteenth, we should remember not only the struggle against chattel slavery but the struggle for radical freedom during Reconstruction — snuffed out by the reactionary forces of property and white supremacy.
“It’s a funny thing how folks always want to know about the War,” mused Felix Haywood about that central fixation of American memory. Haywood had been born in slavery some fifteen years before the Civil War near San Antonio, Texas. “The war weren’t so great as folks suppose,” he told his interviewer, a member of the Federal Writer’s Project collecting testimony from surviving ex-slaves in the late 1930s. “Sometimes you didn’t knowed it was goin’ on. It was the endin’ of it that made the difference.”
Juneteenth marks the day — June 19, 1865 — that the enslaved people of East Texas at long last received word of their freedom as well as the freedom of a quarter million others in the state. Two months had passed since the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s forces at Appomattox and two and a half years since President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves still held in Confederate-controlled areas “forever free” and pledging the federal government to the recognition and maintenance of their freedom.
Juneteenth has been widely celebrated every year since US general Gordon Granger first made the announcement to a crowd of black and white onlookers in Galveston in June 1865. It remains one of the most powerful currents of emancipationist memory in the United States — a counterdemonstration to the noxious propaganda of the Lost Cause.
By their very nature, commemorations tend to simplify events, to strip away the freighted complexities of the past in search of one more usable, if not celebratory. Juneteenth deserves celebration. But the circumstances of the original Juneteenth also deserve our fullest appreciation, for in that confounding history of emancipation in Texas we might glimpse prophetic outlines of the very meaning of freedom in the post-slave — but far from post-racial — United States.
“Hallelujah Broke Out”
Felix Haywood’s account of isolated south-central Texas reveals less about the Civil War itself than the war that was American slavery. He and others on the ranch found that life “went on jus’ like it always had before the war.” Work, worship, whippings — all meted out as usual.
But the flurry of wartime activity in the trans-Mississippi East infiltrated Texas in other, subtler ways. From time to time, Haywood recalled, “someone would come ’long and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that,” he chuckled, for “there wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free” no matter your color. Though Haywood and his family never fled southward, they knew of hundreds who did.
Texas served as a very different sort of beacon. From the 1860 census to June 19, 1865, the enslaved population of Texas nearly doubled. During the war, more than 150,000 enslaved people had been forcibly relocated to the relative safety of Texas, the frontier of the slaveholding Confederacy. Torn from nearby Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, among other states, those enslaved men and women were the rearguard of the massive forced migration enacted in the six decades before the Civil War, a commercial riptide that pulled over a million enslaved men, women, and children toward the cotton kingdom of the lower Mississippi Valley.
As the war unfolded across the South, those fugitive slaveholders who stole themselves and their human chattel westward to Texas merely delayed what was becoming the inevitable, as the concerted actions of enslaved peoples and the United States Army weakened slavery at every turn. Historians estimate that half a million enslaved people absconded from their plantation labor camps during the war; those who remained engaged in what W. E. B. Du Bois famously termed the “general strike.”
Having heard Haywood’s rather unexciting account of the war in remote San Antonio, his interviewer felt pressed to inquire how the former slave knew “the end of the war had come.”
“How did we know it?” the freedman asked incredulously, “Hallelujah broke out. . . . Soldiers, all of a sudden, was everywhere — comin’ in bunches, crossin’ and walkin’ and ridin’. Everyone was a-singin’. We was all walkin’ on golden clouds.” Haywood recited one of the anthems heard that day:
Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Although I may be poor,
I’ll never be a slave —
Shoutin’ the battle cry of freedom.
Up to that point in his interview, Haywood’s account of the Civil War was distant, even dismissive. But the announcement of freedom — of Juneteenth — forever punctuated his memory. “Everybody went wild,” he suddenly exclaimed. “We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that.” Right away, the erstwhile slaves of Texas “started on the move. They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they’d know what it was — like it was a place or a city.”
The landing of US forces at the port of Galveston in June 1865 underscored what the formerly enslaved already knew — and what historians are only beginning to fully appreciate: freedom relied not simply on declarations, laws, and amendments in distant Washington, but on the force of arms. The Juneteenth announcement required enforcement by the 1,800 federal soldiers assigned to the state to make freedom meaningful for the freedpeople of Texas.
The Meaning of Freedom
Though black people had long nurtured their own understandings of what freedom might entail, in June 1865 the very legality and defensibility of their newfound status was anything but certain. Scarcely two weeks had passed since the surrender of Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith’s division in Galveston, though the fighting did not so much disappear as devolve into rampant guerilla warfare and anti-black terrorism.
Lincoln had fallen to an assassin’s bullet two months prior to the Juneteenth announcement, succeeded by the embodiment of racist and reactionary Unionism, Andrew Johnson. The Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished involuntary servitude, had passed both houses of Congress in January but was still in the process of state ratification. Newspapers in Texas were predicting that slavery would survive in the state at least another ten years thanks to northern industrialists’ rapacious desire for cotton.
Entering the fray, the official announcement on June 19 might not have settled the matter of emancipation, but it did contain the outlines of a new order. General Granger’s declaration informed “the people of Texas 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.”
But as the army of liberation turned into an army of occupation — and one imperfectly dedicated to protecting the rights and lives of black Southerners — commanders like Granger stressed that freedom came with many strings attached. “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.” In other words: work for your old masters, and don’t gather together, especially at places, to borrow Haywood’s phrase, “closer to freedom.”
Making good on the implied threat of the June 19 proclamation, the Galveston mayor, with the tacit approval of the provost marshal, rounded up black refugees and runaways and returned them to their owners. Others were dragooned into working for the army.
“With the proclamation of freedom came a practical lesson in its duties,” the Galveston Daily News reported on June 22. “On Monday morning, a guard of Federal soldiers scoured the streets,” rounding up every “loose” freedman “they could lay their hands on, to go to the country and cut wood, man steamboats, or assist in such labor as was necessary for the army. A panic soon seized the new class thus conscripted,” the reporter jeered, “but the quick feet of the white soldiers and the persuasive and pointed argument of the bayonet brought them to a sense of their obligation to support the government which had given them their freedom.”
The new order was to be based on wage labor. But because of the severe cash shortage throughout the post–Civil War South, many planters were unable to pay wages; sharecropping thus emerged as a compromise between wage slavery and actual slavery. Black farmers would rent their land from white planters and pay for it using a portion of their crop come harvest time, usually a quarter to a half.
Employers were free to void the contracts for virtually any “offense,” seizing thereafter the entire harvest and evicting the black sharecropping family from their land, exposing them to vagrancy laws and the dragnet of the convict lease system, what has aptly been called “slavery by another name.” Such was the vaunted ideal of contract freedom.
It took a while for news of emancipation to reach black Texans in the most remote parts of the state — and even longer for it to register with their enslavers. Susan Merritt, enslaved in northeast Texas, reckoned it must have been September when she heard the news. As Merritt recalled in her own Depression-era interview, one day while she and others were picking cotton a stranger rode up to the house — “a government man,” with a “big book and a bunch of papers” — and demanded to know why the planter hadn’t surrendered ownership of his workers. It was from this man — likely an official of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency designed to oversee the transition to freedom and market relations — that Merritt first learned she was free.
Yet she and others were still compelled to work for their old enslaver for “several months after that.” Oft-enacted threats of gunning down deserters doubtless kept many on the plantation. The relative impotency of the US Army and Freedmen’s Bureau emboldened planters. Freedpeople found themselves as precarious tenants, locked into labor contracts that looked more like debt peonage than the freedom they had long envisioned.
As the Freedmen’s Bureau began to establish itself in Texas that fall, reports circulated that its officials were planning to consult with local planters trained in the “management” of black workers — a far cry from the agency’s founding mission. The original charter had included provisions to distribute hundreds of thousands of acres of land that had been abandoned by or confiscated from rebel planters over the course of the war.
By the spring of 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau controlled roughly 900,000 acres of “government land,” enough for nearly twenty-three thousand black homesteads. General William Tecumseh Sherman, moreover, had issued Field Order No. 15 back in January, arranging for the parceling out of some 485,000 acres to freedpeople in the South Carolina Sea Islands and Lowcountry in 40-acre plots, land on which the general had ordered “no white person whatever . . . will be permitted to reside.”
But the counterrevolution came in October 1865. President Johnson unceremoniously revoked Sherman’s order and commanded the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau to denationalize the government’s lands — returning it to the rebel planters Johnson had recently pardoned en masse.
In the emancipated South, then, black dispossession went fist in glove with the coerced imposition of “free” labor. At the same time, Northern capitalists and federal officials conspired to prevent widespread black landownership — the very thing freedpeople almost universally regarded as the precondition for freedom in a post-slave society. One sixty-year-old freedman of the Mississippi Valley commented to a Northern journalist shortly after the war, “What’s de use of being free if you don’t own land enough to be buried in?”
From Reconstruction to Jim Crow
Black-led protests during the final months of 1865 were widespread, though on small scales and usually in response to specific inciting confrontations. One ex–slaveholding planter complained to the Waco Register that although several of his fellow planters deigned to sign contracts with their new black employees, he estimated that three-fourths of the freedpeople in his area “look forward to Christmas as the dawn of the millennium, when meat and bread will come as a matter of course.”
Many black families indeed refused to sign the loathsome contracts for the coming season, waiting on the promise of land redistribution. Among white Southerners, especially of the planter class, fevered rumors spread of an impending Haitian-style revolution. The pervasive fear in the winter of 1865–66 was soon given a label: the Christmas Insurrection Scare. But in the end, it proved to be just that. Promises broken, freedpeople reluctantly entered into labor contracts.
The freedpeople of Texas had plenty of reason to be fearful, however, as some thirty-eight thousand Confederate parolees returned with a vengeance. In addition to raiding the treasury in Austin, the rebels of the failed Confederate state harassed, brutalized, and killed freedpeople at will. As Du Bois noted in Black Reconstruction, the pervasive anti-government, anti-black terrorism so widespread across the South was perhaps the worst in Texas. Simply acting free was grounds for white retaliation. The occupying US Army, meanwhile, lacked either the capacity or will to make black freedom meaningful. In any event, the return to peacetime in 1871 and the swift demobilization of the army spelled disaster for the formerly enslaved.
At the twilight of slavery, then, a new system of dependency and precarity greeted freedpeople in Texas and across the emancipated South — vastly different from the freedom dreams of the formerly enslaved. For their part, the enslavers-turned-employers routinely griped about perceived obstinacy of their black workers — that is, their resistance to being rendered docile vectors of their employers’ will. They complained that “labor is incompatible with their ideas of freedom.” Threats and orders from on high appeared to register little with them. One planter, in a letter to the Dallas Daily Herald, sneered that “they do not believe anything that we tell them or which we may read from papers that is at variance with their ideas of freedom.” It was partly a matter of trust, but even more so a matter of political struggle and conviction that kept them at odds with their exploiters.
After the fall of Reconstruction, that great experiment in biracial democracy, black workers channeled their organizing efforts into various associations such as the Colored Farmers’ Alliance, formed in Houston County, Texas, in 1886. Then came the ascent of the Populist Party in the early 1890s, which depended — especially in the former slaveholding states — on the mobilization of black voters. Texas in particular witnessed a surge of black support for the Populist Party and soon became a Populist stronghold.
The Populist Party was the only meaningfully biracial political party that existed. It was also the only party that spoke to the needs of hundreds of thousands of black sharecroppers in the benighted South.
In the words of C. Vann Woodward, Populism offered to working-class blacks and whites “an equalitarianism of want and poverty, the kinship of common grievance and a common oppressor.” Under unprecedented threat, the two established parties conspired to race-bait and red-bait the Populist Party to death. They succeeded. By the mid-1890s the Democratic Party had cynically adopted a few planks of the Populist platform, coopted some of its leaders, and cast black voters into the electoral oblivion of the increasingly disenfranchised South.
What Juneteenth Means Today
“We knowed freedom was on us,” Felix Haywood recalled in the late 1930s, “but we didn’t know what was to come with it. We thought we was goin’ to get rich like the white folks. We thought we was goin’ to be richer than the white folks, ’cause we was stronger and knowed how to work. . . . But it didn’t turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make ’em rich.”
Juneteenth is worth celebrating for its promised end to human bondage, but its history also reminds us of the “counterrevolution of property” waged against the revolution that was the American Civil War — a conflict that ultimately freed four million black people once legally held as property, a conflict wherein more than 140,000 formerly enslaved men enlisted and countless other black men and women lent their fullest devotion.
It’s common to say nowadays that the Civil War is unfinished. We can, after all, readily point to the ubiquitous battles over so-called Civil War monuments (better understood as monuments to Jim Crow that merely adopt the iconography of the war). But the most enduring legacy of the Civil War is not symbolic or cultural but substantive and economic. Not only did sharecropping prevail into the 1960s, but the particular formulation of freedom exacted upon black people in the emancipated South can be said to weigh like a nightmare on the living, to borrow Marx’s phrase.
Over the past year of the pandemic, political leaders on both sides of the aisle spoke and acted like modern-day Gordon Grangers, brandishing the freedom to work and the threat that we “will not be supported in idleness.” The meager stimulus checks, barely a few weeks’ worth of subsistence for most families, made good on this threat.
So did conservatives’ shameless assaults on unemployment benefits, which they roundly denounced as disincentives to work. Like the ex-slaveholding planters of old, they betrayed a bone-deep belief in the natural laziness of the working class and an unstinting opposition to a different vision of freedom. To that end, too, they devoted themselves to austerity and anti-distributive economics, to incapacitating the welfare state while ramping up the punitive one — and setting it against black-led protests for something closer to approximating the promise of “absolute equality.”
“It was the endin’ of it that made the difference,” Felix Haywood said of the war. This Juneteenth, let’s remember how slavery ended, and how freedom remained — and remains — elusive. And that nobody can make us free but ourselves.