Juneteenth Reality and Myth


 The first known Juneteenth happened in 1866!


Today is Juneteenth, a long overdue holiday. Anyone who disagrees with celebrating the end of slavery simply needs to crawl under a rock and die. The enslaved were not “servants” as Texas officials would have it. Slavery was a barbaric institution that subjected millions to miseries that made mockery of the Christian faith* enslavers professed to uphold.


There is, though, a lot of misunderstanding about Juneteenth. Here are two cases:


1. Juneteenth commemorates when Lincoln freed the slaves.


Nope! Two popular misconceptions swirl around President Lincoln. The first is that he freed slaves with the September 22, 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. The kicker is its qualifier:


“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...”


Lincoln transformed the conflict from a war to preserve the Union to one that also promised freedom to the enslaved but only in areas still “in rebellion.” It did not include four Union states–Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri–that maintained slavery throughout the Civil War (1861-65). Lincoln’s main objective was to dissuade Britain from supporting the Confederacy and thus freed thousands, not millions. (How do you enforce emancipation in areas “under rebellion?”) In theory, had the Confederacy surrendered on December 31, 1863, no more slaves would have gained freedom.


Nor does Juneteenth celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, which legally ended slavery on December 6, 1865. Lincoln ramrodded it through Congress by getting the House of Representatives to pass it before new members were seated, or it wouldn’t have passed. (The Senate accepted it in April 1865, just one week before Lincoln was assassinated.)


Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, was when General Gordon Granger told the enslaved of Texas they were free. That wasn’t technically true. Under the Constitution, ¾ of the states must accept an amendment before it is ratified. That was nearly six months away.


 2. The enslaved freed themselves.


This is a fashionable belief, but it obscures. It’s an important factor but not the only one. To be certain, Black abolitionists–many of them, not just the handful whose names get into history books–convinced numerous Whites to oppose slavery. Frederick Douglass famously persuaded Lincoln to repudiate his racism and support abolition. Likewise, many of the enslaved ran way or took up arms against their masters.


Those who fled slavery’s yoke before the Civil War were unspeakably brave. Estimates hold that about 100,000 made their way to (relatively) safe havens such as Canada, Ohio, and the Northeast. Yet, nearly four million people were held in bondage in 1861. Southern breeding programs were more than capable of replacing runaways. Consider that after 1808 it was illegal to import slaves from abroad. Some were smuggled in but by the time the war began, nearly all enslaved were African-Americans, not Africans. Most were descended from the  388,000 pre-1808 arrivals. 

Let's be careful not to fall prey to reductionist thinking. Christopher Simon Bonner, for instance, credits the hundreds of thousands enslaved folks who made their way to Union lines during the Civil War (1861-65). True, but it presupposes there were Union lines to which they could flee. Slavery would not have ended in 1865 without the war. 


Slavery’s demise involved multiple factors, including:


·       Quakers who first took up abolitionism and inspired others to do so.

·       Northern legislatures that systematically abolished slavery. In 1820, 11 of the nation’s 23 states had done so; by 1860, 19 of 34.

·       A failure of national politicians to resolve the slavery question led to compromises that hardened pro- and anti-slavery activists.

·       So too did Southern overreaction to Northern abolitionism. (FYI/Ten of the first 15 presidents held slaves and just two opposed the practice.)

·       President Andrew Jackson’s gag rule sought to ban discussion of slavery but increased focus upon it.

·       Southern demands for expansionism that would have increased slavery’s reach gave rise to anti-slavery political parties and factions.

·       Religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) cast slavery as a sin.

·       The passage of the very unpopular Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 accelerated Black and White  resistance in the North. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852; John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry occurred in 1859.)

·       Lincoln proved willing to continue the war despite opposition to making emancipation a major objective. Black troops fought to defend freedom's cause.

 Let us celebrate Juneteenth and take stock of White privilege, but do so without misremembering or romanticizing the ugly past. Sadly, postwar Reconstruction did not successfully protect Black freedom. That is a tragedy whose resolution would warrant another holiday. 


Rob Weir


* Muslims also engaged in selling of African slaves.

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