Juneteenth

by ©2021 Sarah Becker

                                                                        Juneteenth

            On June 19th, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War, the belated end of southern slavery.  General Order No. 3:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a [January 1, 1863] proclamation from the Executive of the United States [President Abraham Lincoln], all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equalityof personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.  The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages.  They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Texans celebrated Juneteenth beginning in 1866.  It was revived in 1979 and became an official state holiday in 1980.  The Commonwealth of Virginia first acknowledged the June 19th jubilee in 2007—the 44th state to do so.

            Why so late to the table?  Virginia—for more than 150 years—has championed southern history: Confederate Generals, Lee-Jackson Day, and the Lost Cause.

“The lessons that negroes make a bad use of liberty is taught daily in the police court of this and all other cities in which they are numerous,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote on August 1, 1895.  “Nearly all the cases before such courts are those of negroes, the parties to which are either sent to jail or the work house, put on the chain gang, or impoverished by fines.  Before the Negroes were freed it was a rarity for one of them to be arrested…their money spent in the payment of fines.”

“Between the idea of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the notion of popular sovereignty, between the demands of nationalism and the intimacies of community, between the bumptious sense of manifest destiny of a growing nation and the hard rock of slavery…stood an old and enduring tension in American life,” author Jay Winik penned.

“Since 1619, when representative democracy and enslaved African people arrived in Virginia—within a month of each other—we have said one, but done another,” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said in 2020.  “It’s time we elevate Juneteenth not just as a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and commemorated by all of us.”

“About the last of August came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty ‘Negars,’” Virginia colonist and Pocahontas husband-to-be John Rolfe noted in 1619.  The first “Negars” entered as “indentured servants who could theoretically be freed in five years.”  The remainder came as slaves.

According to Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln the earliest Congresses viewed slavery “in the narrowest limits of necessity.”  Declared Lincoln in 1854:

“When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we; I acknowledge the fact.  When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying.  I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.  If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.  My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia—to their own native land [by way of the American Colonization Society].

That said…When the white man governs himself that is self-government.  But when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism.  If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

In 1794 [Congress] prohibited an out-going slave-trade—that is, the taking of slaves from the United States to sell.  In 1798 [Congress] prohibited the bringing of slaves from Africa into the Mississippi Territory—this territory then comprising what are now the States of Mississippi and Alabama.

In 1800 [Congress] prohibited American citizens from trading in slaves between foreign countries—as, for instance, from Africa to Brazil.  In 1803 [Congress] passed a law…in restraint of the internal slave trade.  In 1807, in apparent hot haste, [Congress] passed the law…prohibiting the African slave trade by heavy pecuniary and corporal penalties.  [Finally] in 1820, finding these provisions ineffectual, [Congress] declared trade piracy, and annexed to it, the extreme penalty of death…Thus we see the plain unmistakable spirit of that age was hostility to the principle of slavery and toleration of it only by necessity.”

U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln [Whig-IL] first tried to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia—the shameful slave trade—in 1849.  He unsuccessfully “reported a bill for the abolition of slavery…with the consent of the voters of the District, and with compensation to owners.”  Twelve years later President Abraham Lincoln [R-IL] signed the 37th Congress’ District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act.

The Act, as signed on April 16, 1862:  Sec. 1: “Be it enacted That all persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African dissent are hereby discharged and freed of and from all claim to such service or labor and from and after the passage of this act neither slavery nor involuntary servitude—except forcrimewhereof the party shall be duly convictedshall hereafter exist in said District.”

The 1862 Act immediately emancipated “2,989 former slaves; compensated 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 [freed slave] choosing emigration.”

Freedom, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: 1. The condition of being free.  2a. Political independence.  2b. Possession of civil rights.  3. Ease of movement.  4. Frankness or boldness.  5. Unrestricted use or access.

Freedom, as limited by legislated Black Codes: in 1808 District Mayor Robert Brent and the D.C. Board of Aldermen “made it unlawful for ‘Negroes’ or ‘loose, idle, disorderly persons to be on the streets after 10 p.m.’”  Mississippi was the first southern state, first defeated Confederate state to formalize the Black Code—on November 24, 1865.

Freedom, as limited by racial segregation in the cities: Virginia, readmitted to the Union in 1870, enacted its first statewide segregation law in 1900.  Still Alexandria buries its 1930s-1950s history of Colored Rosement.  Of white developer Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas; the GI bill and black home ownership, segregation and unrestricted racial covenants.  Musician and socialite; heiress and realtor Virginia Thomas bought “real estate [on June 19, 1939] bounded by Wythe, Payne, West and Pendleton Streets” as part of a privately-funded housing project known as colored Rosemont.

D.C.’s first Emancipation Day Parade took place on April 19, 1866.  Today it also celebrates Juneteenth.  For many, Juneteenth offers an opportunity “to discuss the links between segregation, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and nativism,” Shennette Garrett-Scott wrote in When Peace Come: Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth.  “By World War I segregation laws were firmly in place and a tide of nativism engulfed the country. Many whites and even some blacks saw Juneteenth as un-American because it focused attention on a dark period of U.S. history.”

Maryland officially recognized Juneteenth in 2014; Virginia declared it a state holiday in 2020.  U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) now seeks “to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.”  Said Booker in 2020, “Our nation still has a long way to go to reckon with and overcome the dark legacy of slavery; the violence and injustice that has persisted after its end.”

“Many people and nations get national amnesia when it comes to remembering evil, the disgraceful, the follies, the shameful and the bad portions of history,” Van Caldwell wrote in 2002 in The Washington Post.  “To become mentally healthy and whole, as a nation, we must deal honestly with the good and evil parts of our individual and national personalities and character…But with the national assassination of Lincoln second- and third-rate politicians from the North and South took over…A national day to remember, study, and celebrate the abolition of legalized slavery could give us another start toward reconciliation and integration.”

Reconcile, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: 1. To establish a close relationship between.  2. To settle or resolve.  3. To bring oneself to accept.  4. To make compatible or consistent, as to reconcile opposing views.

Integrate, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: 1. To make into a whole; unify.  2. To join with something else; unite.  3. To open to people male and female, of all races and ethnic groups without restriction.

Amendment 13, as ratified December 6, 1865, constitutionally ended slavery.  Section 1: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.  Section 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”  Black slaves once were property as are/were married women.

Women, black women included, still wait for Senate passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Here’s hoping a national day will promote equality for All!

“Ain’t no more Juneteenth like it used to be,” poet J. Mason Brewer wrote in 1960.  “When Abe Lincoln writ a letter/  Settin’ all the black folks free./  Ain’t no more big picnics, by the riverside./  Where we all sang ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’/  ‘Til we all broke down and cried.”

“Juneteenth marked the end of slavery in this country, and it matters now because it says…this is everyone’s shared history and we will celebrate it together,” Governor Northam reminded.

“Right-minded men would very easily bring order out of our American chaos, if working with courage, & without by-ends,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said in 1864.  “Absolute Emancipation establishes the fact that the United States henceforth knows no color, no race, in its law, but legislates for all alike—one law for all men [and women].”

“Morals is the test,” Emerson continued in 1865, “and it is only very lately that our own Churches, formerly silent on slavery & notoriously hostile to Abolitionists, wheeled into line for Emancipation.”      

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@att.net

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