It was 1865 and the anguish of America’s greatest sin still lingered in the daily lives of African Americans. Even after a civil war to liberate them claimed some 620,000 lives – even after all of that bloodshed – the shackles of servitude were still fastened tightly in place.
President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation just a few short years before on September 22, 1862, and it went into full effect on January 1, 1863 – yet enforcement of “emancipation” had not yet reached Texas slaves.
Word was finally delivered to them in Galveston on June 19, 1865 by Union Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops in the form of General Order No. 3. For slaves, the words of the order were loud and clear. They were finally free, and their first reactions captured the magnitude of the moment, which was expressed in exaltation, jubilation and terror. The war and subsequent events freed many slaves, but Texas remained a stronghold from the proclamation’s final impact until that day. The state’s refusal to enter into the war coupled with few troops within its borders allowed it to ignore Lincoln’s decree. But freed slave Felix Haywood spoke about the feeling of that day in an interview:
“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. Hallejujah! Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free.”
The name Juneteenth, which is June 19th, was adopted and represented what for many became a day when Thomas Jefferson’s words finally found purchase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There was joyous celebration and singing. The years that followed Juneteenth would be a time for former slaves to celebrate a day they perceived to be liberating. Barbecues, baseball and outdoor activities were common; political speeches and achievement were emphasized as well.
But were they truly free?
Proclamations & declarations don’t free people or make them more independent.
History has shown us that time and again that the desire for and attainment of freedom is deeper than a declaration or a proclamation. Although it is within the human ability to write down our noblest aspirations, it’s also completely human to fail to live up to them. The mere idea of trying to attain freedom is a grind, a struggle, and a moral conundrum at times. That date had a profound meaning in the minds of the newly freed slaves; for them it was the realization of something long dreamt about, yet seemed so far off it was impossible.
Juneteenth captured the exhilaration of the moment of freedom, but slaves were far from free as they faced new hurdles that for all intents and purposes extended their bondage and the bondage of succeeding generations of African Americans.
- Black Codes – Returned the rigid social controls of slavery.
- Jim Crow – Kept African Americans from accessing public facilities unless specifically designated for them, i.e., “Whites Only/Blacks Only.”
- Institutional Racism – Rigs the system at a fundamental level to keep white culture/people at the very top and make them less accountable for their actions.
- Prisons – The ultimate outcome of institutional racism is the creation of an apparatus to house a permanent slave class (inmates), recruited under the rubric of “criminal justice.”
Haywood also talked about the realization that merely proclaiming someone free doesn’t make them free: “We knowed freedom was on us, but we didn’t know what was to come with it. We thought we was goin’ to git 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, and the whites didn’t and they didn’t have us to work for them anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make them rich.”
Fair questions for all Americans to ask about this important historical event are, were the slaves truly freed after the war, and were the shackles they wore symbolic of the power of the white-dominated institutions that would keep them in place regardless? And if they weren’t freed in 1865, when were they, and what was the event that freed them? Are African Americans free today?