The Problem of White-Washing Juneteenth

Juneteenth Parade, Malcolm X Park/Shuttershock

Juneteenth’s increasing popularity places long-time celebrants in an unenviable position where euphoria regarding Jubilee’s popularity is tempered by the threat of commercialization, which threatens to sanitize/white-wash significant aspects of the Black past. One has to wonder if the harsh realities Blacks faced before, during, and after Jubilee will become a distant memory. This work illuminates how white Texas power-brokers used  physical violence and created both slave and Black Codes to oppress Blacks before and after Jubilee became an annual celebration in June 1865. 

After relocating to Texas to work as an African-American Studies Professor, I learned that in addition to everything being bigger in Texas, the Lonestar State’s relationship to Blacks is a unique one guided by a malleable Constitution that was repeatedly altered to ensure white privilege. The historical record shows that the Texas Constitution (1836) was an Excalibur wielded by white power-brokers against free and enslaved Blacks. The sword was sharpest when carving a place of subservience for enslaved Blacks or banishing free Blacks from the Republic. The actions of White elites were motivated by the increasing numbers of enslaved Blacks being brought into Texas by slaveowners.

Year Number of Enslaved Africans
1845 30,000
1850 58,161
1860 182,566

 Enslaved Blacks in the Republic were largely unskilled field laborers working on plantations while a smaller population were semi-skilled and skilled laborers working in urban areas. When President Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, records show that there were one-thousand skilled Black workers residing in Houston and Galveston, respectively.

The momentum necessary to emancipate enslaved Africans began with the Confiscation Act of 1862. Despite pervasive misconceptions, Black Galvestonians learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, the same year it debuted. This information created a reasonable expectation among enslaved Blacks that Jubilee was imminent. However, they soon learned that their bonded status would remain because Union troops were not occupying Texas. The absence of Union troops from the Republic extended the enslavement of 250,000 Blacks for thirty months after Lincoln’s announcement. Neither Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, nor the surrender of the Western Army of the Trans-Mississippi’s surrender on June 2nd of the same year managed to free Blacks in the Lonestar State.

The dogged strength of Texas slavery heightened the importance of Union General Gordon Granger’s arrival and his taking control of the Department of Texas on June 10, 1865. Galveston native Sharon Batiste Gillins recounts Granger’s arrival:

Galveston Daily News reported that Federal troops would soon arrive in Galveston. The announcement quickly spread throughout the white and black community and the city’s residents were overcome with a curious mix of anticipation and anxiety. Uncertainty permeated the air as they contemplated the consequences of the War’s end and the arrival of Federal troops into the city. Each segment of the population experienced a different set of emotions…

On June 19th (Juneteenth), General Granger, accompanied by 2,000 troops, arrived at the Union Army Headquarters (The Osterman Building) and delivered General Order Number 3. The General told the audience:

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 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 quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Granger would repeat this message at the local Courthouse, Customs House, and the Negro Church on Broadway. The city of Galveston was one of many stops that Granger would make during the next six weeks. Not until summer’s end had the emancipation message spread throughout the entire Republic.

The historical record proves that white power-brokers’ resistance to emancipation began decades before Jubilee. It should have surprised no one when plantation owners usurped General Order Number 3 by forcing emancipated Blacks to work through the harvest season. From the plantation owners’ perspective, even in freedom, Blacks would have no say in how their lives unfolded. While all newly-freed Blacks were uncertain about the path forward, they responded to such uncertainty differently. Many fled Texas without hesitation in search of family, however, the majority of Blacks, paralyzed by uncertainty, remained on familiar plantations as sharecroppers.

Indicative of Whites’ determination to retain politico-economic control of the Lone Star State was an editorial that appeared forty-eight hours after General Granger’s announcement in Galveston:

 This attempt to overthrow an institution that has become a part of our social system and which our entire population has believed essential to the welfare of both races . . . and all we can do in our present entire dependence on the clemency of our conquerors, is to repeat to them what we have been urging for so many years . . . that the attempt to set the negro free from all restraint and make him politically the equal of the white man, will be most disastrous to the whole country and absolutely ruinous to the South.

White Texans responded to General Granger’s message by buttressing their privileged status with increasing amounts of physical violence and unprecedented discriminatory legal codes.

The Black Codes, passed by an all-white Constitutional Congress (1866), aimed at two goals: (a) ensuring the uninterrupted impoverishment of Black laborers and (b) ensuring the continuation of white supremacy. The Black Codes coerced Blacks into exploitive year-long labor contracts while pervasive illiteracy ensured formerly bonded persons did not always understand the work agreements. Unfortunately for Blacks, any resistance to exploitive arrangements resulted in vagrancy charges and lengthy incarcerations that paved a smooth path to re-enslavement, as it was allowed by the 13th Amendment. Not even Lincoln’s short-lived Freedman’s Bureau was a formidable opponent of such economic injustices.  

White Texans, determined to ensure that the Confederacy’s defeat would not disrupt their tyrannical rule, began an unprecedented pattern of abuse. Susan Merritt’s recollections support the assertion that physical violence was key to White Texan’s domination. According to Ms. Merritt, “You could see lots of ni***ers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ‘cause they cotch ‘em swimmin’ ‘cross Sabine River and shoot ‘em.”

Katie Darling remembers that her former mistress would “whip me after the war just like she did ‘fore.” An unknown bonded woman commented: “The 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free.”

Blacks such as Katie Darling learned that actual freedom was not the fabled one imagined during bondage. Historian C.R. Gibbs illuminates the rarely considered underbelly of this moment in the following quote: “Black people were in such a delicate situation in Texas. You have the collapse of the Confederate government. And roving bands of men who wanted to turn the clock back. A Union officer once said, ‘Given a choice between hell and Texas, I would live in hell’ . . . It was just that bad in Texas.”

Shortly after Juneteenth, Texas elected officials’ efforts to maintain control of the Republic received a boost from the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan. The dual power of state legislators and Klan members made a formidable tandem with the latter executing physical violence that ultimately facilitated over 450 lynching’s within the Lone Star State over the next sixty years.

Ironically, Charles Dickens’ opening line in A Tale of Two Cities“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”is applicable to the matters surrounding Juneteenth. On the one hand, supporters of the celebration should appreciate its increasing popularity, however, with commercialization must come caution. We must all work to ensure that the latter portion of Dickens’ infamous line does not lead to the white-washing of history and a false narrative that paints villainous Whites as heroes who have neither shame nor responsibility for their deeds.

I can think of nothing worse than that.

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James Jones III

James Jones III is Associate Professor of History at Prairie View A&M University.

Comments on “The Problem of White-Washing Juneteenth

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    Thank goodness there are still thinking people…and those who rely on real history.

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