Juneteenth and American Democracy

                                                     An African American Family (Franklin Crawford/Flickr) 

In the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the new wave of Black Lives Matter protests that summer, Juneteenth, an emancipation holiday originating in Galveston, Texas, has increasingly gone national. This year, businesses and communities in every state will host celebrations marking the anniversary of US General Gordon Granger’s General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865, which freed all remaining enslaved persons in the state of Texas, the last Confederate state conquered by Union forces in the Civil War. Juneteenth has a deep and rich history in local African American communities in Texas and elsewhere in the South and West,  and its increased visibility on the national level offers a useful lesson on the role of federal intervention, past and present, in realizing the full promise of American democracy.

Juneteenth is one of several holidays, including Freedom’s Eve or Watch Night , marking the end of slavery in the United States. These holidays corresponded with the multiple military orders and laws that federal officials enacted to end slavery in the 1860s. First came the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863. Issued as a wartime executive order by President Abraham Lincoln, the Proclamation only freed enslaved people living in states that had seceded to join the Confederacy. Thus, as one mother of a Black Union soldier wrote to President Lincoln in July 1863, “although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of African Americans, and fundamentally transformed the character of the war from a war for the Union into a war for freedom”

It was not until the 13th Amendment, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, that slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime” was outlawed in the entire United States. But the 13th Amendment took almost a year to ratify and even after the US army’s total victory against the Confederacy in the spring of 1865, the end of slavery was slow and uneven. In Indian Territory, slavery was not abolished within most of the so-called Five  Civilized Tribes until the summer of 1866.

Northerners had long argued that slavery was a weak institution, but slaveholders did not easily give it up after the Civil War. When the Confederate Army surrendered on April 9, 1865, most of the nearly four million people who were enslaved at the start of the war remained in bondage and slaveholders sought to restore the institution during peacetime.  Slaveholders actively barred enslaved people from leaving and continued practices of physical punishment and torture, facing no repercussions in areas dominated by local white rule.

Thus, while the histories we learn about emancipation focus on key dates and laws, the process by which slavery actually ended was far less definitive and frequently contested. Slavery did not die on its own; it had to be actively destroyed. And in the quest to kill slavery, federal military intervention was the critical factor. As historian Greg Downs has shown, “freedom depended on proximity and force. Rather than either self-emancipation or a gift from above, freedom was a process in which ex-slaves asserted their new status through proximity to powerful defenders.” Visualizing the US Army’s presence in the former Confederate South after 1865, Downs’ “Mapping Occupation”  website shows how  access to federal agents made material differences in the ability of freedpeople to gain specific rights and freedoms in the postbellum South.

A number of slave narratives record a similar process, centering stories of freedom around the arrival of US officers to plantations. Remembering the day she learned she was free, Katie Rowe, an Black  woman formerly enslaved in Arkansas, recalled the arrival of a man she had never seen before but who “had on a big broad black hat lak de Yankees wore.” The official told everyone on the Isaac Jones plantation, “Well dis de fourth day of June, and dis is 1865, and I want you all to ‘member de date . . . Today you is free, Jest lak I is . . . and your Mistress and all us white people.”  Fifteen days later in Galveston, Texas, Union soldiers participated in a similar process, officially ordering the emancipation of all enslaved persons in the area, effectively abolishing slavery in the US.

Even for the enslaved people who took freedom for themselves, proximity to Union lines and outposts was often a critical factor for success. Without enforcement, such orders during and after the Civil War could amount to little more than empty gestures.  The US Army’s presence throughout the South during Reconstruction tempered anti-Black violence and was key to protecting Black Americans’ exercise of their new political rights, especially the vote.  Of course, with the formal withdrawal of troops from the South in 1877 and the end Reconstruction, the white Southern insurgency moved swiftly to deny interracial democracy. Federal intervention had not substantively transformed the South but rather provided a provisional bulwark against elite Southern interests. But the period did expand access to American democracy, even if only temporarily. It also increasingly made the federal government the defender, rather than abrogator, of individual rights.

Now in the twenty-first century, we face new iterations of old threats to our democracy, especially as states throughout the union seek to restrict voting rights. But if the history of emancipation and Reconstruction is any guide, the federal government has the right and obligation to intervene and deny the latest state-level attempts to disproportionately disenfranchise non-white voters and distort American democracy. As Americans increasingly call for Juneteenth to be made a federal holiday, so too should they demand federal action, whether cooperative or partisan, to protect our interracial democracy. Juneteenth, and the history of slavery and emancipation it recognizes, offers a critical lesson for our own time. Antidemocratic measures do not die on their own, they must be killed. Let’s get to work.

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Alexandra E. Stern

Alexandra E. Stern is a political historian of nineteenth-century America and Native America and a specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. She is currently an ACLS Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter @weSTERNhistoria.