Juneteenth

juneteenth-bannerTerms for the end of Civil War hostilities began at a courthouse in Virginia in April of 1865, but it didn’t end in Texas until June later that year. Slaves continued to work and personal freedoms were ignored because no one got the word.  No social media, no media of any kind, no newspapers for slaves who of course were not allowed to read (outlawed by the Slave Codes).

General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia of the southern forces, abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.  At a private residence on April 12, 1865, Lee formerly surrendered to the Union Army General Ulysses S. Grant effectively ending the Civil War. Throughout the South enslaved blacks left plantations and stopped being personal property and began a new life.   News of the surrender took considerable time to get to plantations.  Even southern forces took considerable time to put the war behind them. For instance, the infamous founder of the Ku Klux Klan and murderer of blacks and combatants, Nathan Bedford Forrest finally surrendered on May 9, 1865.  He’s revered by segregationists for his anti-black brutal actions.  Even President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that become effective on January 1, 1863 (in a speech by Lincoln on September 22, 1862), is known to have taken considerable time to reach slaves. The Proclamation, for many, was just a war maneuver, calling for slaves to turn on their masters.  How and when did slaves, or would slaves, get the word of freedom?

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, documents were created and stories archived.  The WPA employed more than 8 million unemployed at it’s height, it began in 1935 and ended in 1943.  As a government agency it employed writers, artists, construction workers and others, to put people back to work following the effects of the Great Depression.  A team of writers gathered thousands of stories and documented the accounts of rapidly vanishing former slaves (as well as other oral accounts).  Some of those narratives are recounted in, Bullwhip Days, written by James Mellon.  To get a better understanding of slave reactions to the freedom attained by the end of the Civil War, first-hand accounts are a great insight into Juneteenth,  the day freedom was supposedly made real.

The realities of slave life retold to WPA writers was the harsh and everyday struggle of slavery. The prospect of ending rape, beatings, the separations from family and other unbearable atrocities was for some so unbelievable that but former slaves feared their new lives even more.  The prospect of the unknown proved more than many could bare. For the not too optimistic former slave, the acceptance of miserable conditions as their lot in life was a reasonable condition it was often bouyed by religion.

 

Many of the slave narratives are subdued, with little elation or regard to their freedom. Missing are the expressions of joy one might expect, in addition to the absence of hope or the prospect of a better life. Jubilation could be expected, but it’s seldom related in the written documents. The reality and turmoil,  bitter trials of Jim Crow Laws, tempered the narratives.  Former slaves recounting slave days, as they lived through the brutality of the aftermath of slavery.  Perhaps the endless generations of a hopeless existence and the ignorance of what to expect compounded by the painful retaliation of white society, not to mention the resentment of some former slaves tempered the narratives. Taking on the mantle of an unpredictable life as opposed to a predictable albeit cruel existence seemed acceptable for some former slaves. When the word that southern forces had surrendered, some faced the misplaced retaliation losers often display to the undeserving.

Juneteenth as a celebration began in Texas. It’s alive and well and part of a list of official holidays in some places that find it important to honor the horrible race based peculiar wealth creating system practiced in the United States, the land of the free.

 

 

Harriet Tubman

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Note:
Juneteenth was first celebrated on June 19th back in 1865. The first noted celebration, as far we can tell, was in Galveston, Texas. This celebration is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.  The Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Even though that this was years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans 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.

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