Juneteenth and the Limits of Emancipation

Juneteenth and the Limits of Emancipation

On June 19, 1865, not long after forcing the surrender of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith at Galveston, Texas, General Gordon Granger issued General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’”  For the approximately 275,000 enslaved Black people living in Texas at the time, Granger’s declaration was momentous.  Two long months after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, official word of emancipation had finally made its way to the western reaches of the Confederacy.[1]  As Green Cumby recalled during an interview with a Federal Writers’ Project journalist in the late 1930s, when news of emancipation reached him, “I felt like it be Heaven here on earth.”[2]

Elderly African American man seated in a chair with a cane.
Green Cumby, Abilene, Texas, 1937. Cumby was born into slavery in Henderson, Texas, around 1851. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The date of June 19, or Juneteenth, quickly would be enshrined in Black celebrations of Jubilee Day, first in Texas and then across the United States.  By the 1930s, tens of thousands of African Americans would assemble in mass gatherings to celebrate the holiday in Texas alone.  Although the popularity of Juneteenth ebbed and flowed throughout the 1900s, by the turn of the twentieth century, Shennette Garrett-Scott writes, “people of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities in the United States and in parts of the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe celebrated Juneteenth.”[3]   Amidst this present moment of transnational Black Lives Matter protest, Juneteenth has only grown in renown.

Despite the holiday’s significance in the longer struggle for Black freedom, the history of Juneteenth–archived in the Federal Writers’ Project testimonies of formerly enslaved people–is also a clear reminder of the fundamental limits of the U.S. federal government’s wartime emancipation program and White America’s commitment to anti-Blackness.[4]Occurring several weeks after Appomattox, General Orders No. 3 demonstrated the enduring power (and violence) of White enslaver society, even in the face of defeat.  To some extent, Texas had become the final stronghold of Confederate influence, as thousands upon thousands of Whites “refugeed” their slave property “way over in Texas,” especially after 1862.  Relocating some 50,000 or more enslaved Black people, these enslavers effectively prolonged and enhanced slavery along the western frontier of the Confederacy, distant from even the bloodshed of the Civil War’s “western theater” along the Mississippi River.  “Dey say we’d never be free iffen dey could git to Texas wid us,” explained Elvira Boles.[5]  In this context, there were too few Union troops for mass movement against slavery, nothing quite like the “general strike” that swept across the rest of the Confederacy.  Instead, the struggle for Black freedom in Texas persisted in more personal ways, through community building, fugitivity, and other forms of resistance and survival.[6]  As Martin Jackson recollected, “I spent most of my time planning and thinking of running away.”[7]

With the arrival of General Granger and his 1,800 or so Union troops at Galveston in June 1865, Black freedom was momentarily buoyed by the power of the U.S. federal government, and General Orders No. 3 put to paper this new dynamic.  Yet, the limits of emancipation also were built into this very instrument.   Although Granger’s message declared “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” his General Orders No. 3 simultaneously curtailed Black liberty.  Not only were the newly freedpeople “advised to remain quietly at their present homes,” immobilized in the presence of their recent violent enslavers; Granger also sought to redefine the slave-enslaver relationship as now one “between employer and hired labor.”  As Granger explained, “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.”  Freedom, therefore, was to fit the White Northern mold of “free labor.”[8]

Elder African American couple standing on a porch.
Anderson and Minerva Edwards, Marshall, Texas, 1937. Anderson Edwards remembered that his enslaver “didn’t tell us we’s free till a whole year after we was.” Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Federal projections notwithstanding, ex-enslavers and their co-conspirators worked tirelessly to undermine emancipation, even after Union military occupation.  Many forced or manipulated freedpeople into oppressive labor arrangements.[9]  Others reimagined state powers to control and exploit Black bodies.[10]  Still others resorted to White enslaver traditions of information suppression, violence, and intimidation, in some cases whipping freedpeople “after the war jist like [they] did ‘fore.”[11]  In fact, waves of violence swept over Texas starting in the fall of 1865, as former enslavers, the Ku Klux Klan, and other White supremacists terrorized Black communities.  “You could see lots of [Black bodies] hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom,” Susan Merritt remembered.[12]  With institution of the convict leasing system in the years that followed, Black people in Texas faced bondage through criminalization.  By the twentieth century, this state-run apparatus, which leased out criminalized Black people as farm, mining, railroad, and construction laborers, appeared to social scientist Charles S. Potts as “nothing more nor less than a form of human slavery.”[13]  The 1930s accounts of formerly enslaved people–ostensibly about life under slavery–also make evident the enduring violence and oppression of a White supremacist Texas society. According to Eli Coleman, since emancipation “it been Hell.”  The Black man, he continued “has advance some ways, but he’s still a servant and will be, long as Gawd’s curse still stay on the Negro race.”[14]

Juneteenth marks a watershed moment in the history of Black freedom in the United States, the day “We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.”[15]  But Juneteenth’s history also teaches us that the foundations of anti-Black slavery–violence, exploitation, fungibility, and extinguishability–hardly died with U.S. federal intervention in the summer of 1865.[16]  If a federally led emancipation held the promise of a new epoch, the new order could not–or would not–disentangle itself from centuries of capturing, owning, using, and looting Black bodies.  Even the dynamic of formerly enslaved people speaking to White interviewers (sometimes the relations of their former enslavers) during the heyday of Jim Crow could not obscure or erase that reality.  Juneteenth thus reveals the paths of Black freedom as ongoing struggle.  And as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of a century and a half later declare, the fight lives on.


[1] For discussion of the contested process of surrender in Texas, see David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 258-66.

[2] Testimony of Green Cumby, in Federal Writers’ Project, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, Assembled by the Library of Congress Project Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia Sponsored by the Library of Congress (Washington, 1941), “Texas Narratives,” Volume XVI, Part 1, 262.  For all of the published narratives, see https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/.

[3] Shennette Garrett-Scott, “Why Juneteenth Matters,” Association for the Study of African American Life and History (June 2020) https://asalh.org/why-juneteenth-matters/.

[4] Of course, the testimonies must be read with a critical eye, as White journalists typically conducted the interviews and transcribed the testimonies.  The significance of these testimonies was not lost on Wes Brady, who frankly stated: “Some white folks might want to put me back in slavery if I tells how we was used in slavery times.” Testimony of Wes Brady, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 134.  Also see Sharon Ann Musher, “Contesting ‘The Way the Almighty Wants It’: Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection,” American Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1 (March 2001): 1-31.

[5] Testimony of Virginia Bell, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 64 (“way over in Texas”); Dale Baum, “Slaves Taken to Texas for Safekeeping during the Civil War,” in Charles D. Grear, ed., The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 208), 83-103; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865, 245; Testimony of Elvira Boles, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 107.

[6] Alwyn Barr, Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528-1995, 2nd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 36-37; W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935); Testimony of Jacob Branch, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 142.

[7] Testimony of Martin Jackson, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 189.

[8] For White Northern attempts to impose a wage labor system onto the defeated South, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

[9] Testimony of Eli Coleman, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 239; Testimony of Clinto Lewis, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 3, 2-3; Carl Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War: The Struggle of Reconstruction (Texas A& M University Press, 2004), 23.

[10] Testimony of William Green, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 96; Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War, 55-61.

[11] Testimony of Anderson and Minerva Edwards, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 8; Testimony of John Crawford, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 258; Testimony of Issabella Boyd, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 115; Testimony of Katie Darling, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 279-80 (“after the war”).

[12] Testimony of William Hamilton, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 106-7; Testimony of Susan Merritt, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 3, 78; Moneyhon, Texas after the Civil War, 34-36, 80-84; Crouch, 80-81, 95-110.

[13] Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 92; David M. Oshinsky, “Convict Labor in the Post-Civil War South: Involuntary Servitude After the Thirteenth Amendment,” in Alexander Tsesis, ed., The Promises of Liberty: The History and Contemporary Relevance of the Thirteenth Amendment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 104; Charles S. Potts, “The Convict Labor System of Texas,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 21 (May 1903): 88.

[14] Testimony of Eli Coleman, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 1, 239.

[15] Testimony of Felix Haywood, FWP, “Texas Narratives,” Part 2, 132.

[16] See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 19-25.

Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

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