To the editor:
The celebration of Juneteenth was a pivotal marker of freedom for the enslaved Blacks in 1865 and beyond. However, the idea that the slaves were freed two years before, via the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 — the executive order of its day — and the news of freedom took that long to then be announced by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, were myths.
First, Texas as a Confederate state would not have honored the proclamation from President Lincoln, who had no authority over the state at that time. Texas, with the other slave states, had seceded the Union and were engaged in the Civil War to preserve their way of life.
So, the enslaved population in the Confederate states had not gained their freedom, even if they had gotten news through the whispers that such an order was issued.
Second, the timing of two years. It was more likely that after Texas surrendered to the Union Army on June 2, 1865, Maj. Gen. Granger then rode in accompanied by Union troops, with General Order No. 3, on June 19, 1865. It simply stated, “The people are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
There was a little more, but that was the gist.
Still, the enslaved population in Galveston at the time was about 1,700 people. It required an arduous stepped approach, Confederate state-by-Confederate state effort by the Union army to make the pronouncement of freedom, and then enforce it through the rest of the Confederate states.
Of course, the institution of slavery was not completely abolished for the rest of the nation until the 13th Amendment was ratified at the end of that year on Dec. 6, 1865.
But the states went along with signing the document in exchange for a huge compromise: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
That exception opened the door for a new set of repressive laws known as “black codes.” Widely enacted throughout the South following the Civil War — a period called Reconstruction — these laws both limited the rights of Black people and exploited them as a labor source via a prison convict leasing system.
Wide swaths of industries paid the states to gain access to this leasing system of involuntary servitude, shattering any remaining myths of freedom.
“History seldom repeats itself, but it sometime rhymes,” said Mark Twain, a poet of that era. Today’s prison industrial complex, talks of building new prisons in Florida in the 2024 presidential campaign, and the continuing rollback of rights — especially in the “red” states — validate his idiom. It is also why civic engagement to halt the erosion of rights, rather that celebration of a marker of freedom, should be the impetus of Juneteenth.