A version of this post was originally published at dailykos.com
We are celebrating the day that the last of the legally enslaved people in the U.S. received word of their freedom in Galveston, Texas, on June 19th in 1865 — now called Juneteenth and which took place two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. I can’t ever really enthusiastically celebrate the Fourth of July since too many of my ancestors were in bondage in 1776 and in the ensuing decades. Those slave-owning and selling presidents who preceded Abraham Lincoln, like George Washington, are not what Lincoln is to me: the father of a nation unchained.
I can still remember my first trip to Washington, DC, as a little girl with my parents. We went to stay with relatives in Anacostia (southeast DC), and from there went out to see the city’s historical sites. The first stop on our tour was not the Capitol or the White House — it was the Lincoln Memorial, where we gazed upon the statue of Abraham Lincoln. My parents explained that President Lincoln had “freed the slaves,” naming members of our family that had gained freedom as a result of his Emancipation Proclamation. When you are six or seven years old, you don’t have much of a grasp of history, but the man’s sad, craggy face moved me, and I felt a personal connection between him and the family names I knew like “Great Granddaddy Roberts,” “Great Grandma Millie,” and “Great Aunt Annie,” who had been a runaway. Later, we took a side trip to Loudoun County, Virginia, to visit Cousin Mandy and Cousin Bea Scipio, where these two elderly ladies who lived in a log cabin told stories passed down from their parents of slavery. In the ensuing years of my childhood, we learned about the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War in school, but it wasn’t until later in my life, in young adulthood, that I learned more about the nuances of Lincoln’s history — his ambivalence towards blacks, and colonization plans to send them “back to Africa” or to Chiriqui (Panama). I also learned that all those who were enslaved were not automatically freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. I didn’t know as a child that the Emancipation Proclamation covered only freed enslaved people in areas over which Lincoln had no control and not the half-million slaves in the border states that recognized him as president. Nor the 300,000 in New Orleans and other parishes of Louisiana already mostly under federal control at the time of the Proclamation.
The Library of Congress displays this print by artist Thomas Nast, distributed in 1865, depicting a rosy view of emancipation and freedom.
Their site describes it as a “a somewhat optimistic picture of the future of free blacks in the United States”:
The central scene shows the interior of a freedman’s home with the family gathered around a “Union” wood stove. The father bounces his small child on his knee while his wife and others look on. On the wall near the mantel hangs a picture of Abraham Lincoln and a banjo. Below this scene is an oval portrait of Lincoln and above it, Thomas Crawford’s statue of “Freedom.” On either side of the central picture are scenes contrasting black life in the South under the Confederacy (left) with visions of the freedman’s life after the war (right). At top left fugitive slaves are hunted down in a coastal swamp. Below, a black man is sold, apart from his wife and children, on a public auction block. At bottom a black woman is flogged and a male slave branded. Above, two hags, one holding the three-headed hellhound Cerberus, preside over these scenes, and flee from the gleaming apparition of Freedom. In contrast, on the right, a woman with an olive branch and scales of justice stands triumphant. Here, a freedman’s cottage can be seen in a peaceful landscape. Below, a black mother sends her children off to “Public School.” At bottom a free Negro receives his pay from a cashier. Two smaller scenes flank Lincoln’s portrait. In one a mounted overseer flogs a black field slave (left); in the other a foreman politely greets Negro cotton-field workers.
Yes, there were celebrations, like the one depicted below, in Washington DC.
“Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia by the colored people in Washington, April 19, 1866.”
It wasn’t until I began to do intensive research on my own family’s enslavement history that I discovered the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed some of my Scipio, Weaver and Jackson relatives. The irony attached to that early emancipation was that slave owners who swore loyalty to the Union were granted “compensation” — in other words, reparations. There was no payback for those men and women held in a lifetime of bondage; those who profited were the whites who had lost their “property”. As the Archives notes:
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this law came 8 1/2 months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The act brought to a conclusion decades of agitation aimed at ending what antislavery advocates called “the national shame” of slavery in the nation’s capital. It provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing emigration. Over the next 9 months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.
Thankfully, the records of those freed are now digitized on the Civil War Washington website, giving glimpses of what those “slaves” — who were people — looked like. Here’s what I found: I’ve bolded the names of my family members, including my Great Grand Uncle Dennis Weaver, one of the two enslaved ancestors for whom I was named Denise, and the Scipio (Sipio) ancestors of my cousins Mandy and Bea. Petition of Hugh W. Throckmorton, 5 May 1862:
Your Petitioner, Hugh W. Throckmorton of Washington City D.C. by this his petition in writing, represents and states, that he is a person loyal to the United States, who, at the time of the passage of the said act of Congress, held a claim to service or labor against the following persons of African descent of the names of Lewis Sipio, Solomon Ford, Henry Weaver, Patsy Jackson, John Jackson Dennis Weaver, Winney Ford and Joseph Ford for and during the life of said Persons and that by said act of Congress said Persons was discharged and freed of and from all claim of your petitioner to such service or labor; that at the time of said discharge said Lewis Sipio was of the age of Thirty Years and of the personal description following:(1) Light Coloured, Solomon Ford Twenty Nine Years of a Dark Coloured, Henry Weaver aged Twenty Six Years, Dark Coloured Patsy Jackson, aged Twenty two years, Dark Coloured John Jackson aged Eight Months. Light Coloured Dennis Weaver aged Eighteen years. Dark Coloured Winney Ford aged Sixteen years, Dark Coloured and Joseph Ford aged fifteen years. Dark Coloured all very healthy and No defect excepting Henry Weaver who has a Broken Leg; and at Present Writing on Crutches but improving That your petitioner acquired his claim to the aforesaid service or labor of said Negroes in manner following:(2) Partly by inheritance and partly by Purchase. having formerly Belonged to his father Mordicai Throckmorton. Who died in Loudoun Co. State of Virginia. Leaving Said Negroes, as aforesaid, he the said Hugh, Paying the debts due by his said father, thereby partly receiving them by inheritance and partly by Purchase as aforesaid.
One of the things that has always bothered me about the history of enslavement in the U.S. is that too often we use the term “slaves,” which makes those enslaved persons faceless and is dehumanizing. I’m grateful that I’ve got some pictures and family narratives to add detail to that time. For those of you who don’t have these details, there are portrait photos of freed people in the Library of Congress, many from the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project that put faces and stories to places and people, like this one from Texas:
Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas. Born a slave about 1850, south of San Antonio. Came to Carrizo Springs during the Civil War with white cattlemen seeking new range. In 1865, with his master was one of the first settlers. Knew Billy the Kid, King Fisher, and other noted ‘bad men’ of the border. Photograph by Dorothea Lange, 1936.
Finally we come to that last emancipation day in Texas:
Granger read the proclamation:“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 response was electric.
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’ — attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. 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 neighboring states drove the 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.
Sadly, we know all too well that black folks continued, and still continue, to suffer under the legacy of past enslavement and systemic racism. For the history following emancipation, I suggest reading Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon or viewing the PBS documentary.
Knowing how far we’ve come and how far we may still have to go down the road from emancipation doesn’t stop us from finding things to celebrate — for a life without any joy, is a life not worth living. We celebrate, we sing, we share ties with family and friends, and we renew ourselves to keep on pushing. Though Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas they have spread.
I’m making my plans for a celebration right on my back porch. I’ll be hanging out a Juneteenth flag and cookin’ up a storm. Here are some of the Juneteenth recipes I’ll be preparing: sweet potato biscuits, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, smothered chicken, oven-fried catfish, with bread puddin’ and blackberry cobbler for dessert. Join a local celebration, and if you can’t find one, start one of your own. This isn’t just black history. It’s American history. On the 19th, say “Happy Juneteenth” to a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker. If they don’t know what Juneteenth is — you can now teach them.