Juneteenth: A waypoint on a difficult road to freedom

VALLEY FORGE, PA (06/7/2024)—The events preceding and following June 19, 1865, the day commemorated by the federal holiday of Juneteenth, underscore that passing even the best legislation is insufficient to ensure freedom for all. Like the Emancipation Proclamation that came into effect on January 1, 1863, or the Thirteenth Amendment, passed on January 31, 1865, legislation must not only be enacted but also enforced in order to bring justice.

Photo by Tasha Jolley on Unsplash

Photo by Tasha Jolley on Unsplash.

Certain facts are well known. Following his arrival in Texas with 1,800 men, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger announced on June 19, 1865, “All slaves are free,” and “there will be absolute equality or personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” The westernmost Confederate state, Texas was home to many plantations and farms where enslaved people had been forced to toil.

History is more complicated, however. Many myths have grown up around Juneteenth, chief among them that African Americans had remained enslaved until June 1965 because they did not know slavery had been abolished. In this telling, General Granger proclaimed freedom to those lacking awareness, with slow-traveling communication often given as a cause for this nescience.

Historical accounts such as the story of Felix Haywood, an enslaved man in Texas during the Civil War, contradict this explanation. “We knowed what was goin’ on in [the war] all the time,” Haywood was recorded to have said. At emancipation, he added, “We all felt like heroes, and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.”

Slow communication or ignorance as the reason people in Texas remained enslaved in June 1865 suffered from a critical omission. They neglected to identify the role of the slave masters as obstacles to freedom. The rebels simply ignored the new law, refusing to release their enslaved people. Until military force was brought to bear, exploitation continued, including the sale and purchase of slaves as late as October 1865 by some reports.

Emancipation legislation passed before the 1863 Proclamation was very troublesome. In its first act to free a group of enslaved people—the District of Columbia Compensation Emancipation Act of 1862—the government offered reparations to slave owners for “lost property.” Once the act was passed, enslavers would petition the government for money equal to the amount they thought their slaves were worth. For example, Lewis Brooks

Ethically, the Compensation Emancipation Act did nothing to shift the longstanding American paradigm that Black people were material possessions. Rather, the act reinforced it. In 1862, enslavers in the District of Columbia received reparations for 3,100 freedpeople. Hundreds of similar petitions are listed on a website hosted by the University of Nebraska.

Akin to the later response of Texas slaveholders to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, many enslavers in the District of Columbia resisted the 1862 Compensation Emancipation Act, using intimidation and violence to prevent their enslaved from leaving. Consequently, the Supplemental Act was passed. It granted enslaved people the right to directly petition the Commission for the Emancipation of Slaves for their or their relatives’ freedom. The Supplemental Act also eliminated reparations to enslavers when their enslaved had to petition for their freedom.

The Supplemental Act set a precedent for Black Americans. Under its provisions, Blacks were able to be plaintiffs in court, testify, and serve on juries. However, emancipatory success was incomplete. Fourteen percent of the petitions were denied on the grounds that the petitioners “could not establish that they were residents of the District of Columbia without their owners’ permission.”

The Supplemental Act effectively perpetuated slavery’s dehumanization as people continued to be inventoried like property. Moreover, by directing reparations to the enslavers and not the freedpeople, it also propped up a social system of race-based exploitation that continues to this day. Kris Manjapra, professor of history at Tufts University, wrote in Politico: “The idea of enslavers as the aggrieved party deserving of amends and appeasement, structured the trajectory of what would follow.”

During the decade following the Civil War, Congress started to back out of its pledge to support millions of formerly enslaved Black people. White Southerners were able to establish a system of white supremacy and Black disenfranchisement (which were by no means limited to the American South) combined with a new economic order that continued to exploit Black lives and labor through terror, violence, lynchings and other lawlessness.

As necessary as the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the District of Columbia Emancipation Act were to ending slavery, these laws alone were insufficient. Juneteenth remains a powerful reminder that fulfilling what the laws promised required the resilience and courage of freedpeople and strategic application of military force. It is important to acknowledge the significance of Juneteenth—and the shortcomings of emancipation legislation that later history of the United States clearly shows.

By Rev. Dr. Anna Piela, senior writer at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and associate editor of The Christian Citizen