On June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger, newly arrived with 1,800 men in Texas, ordered that “all slaves are free” in Texas and that there would be an “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” The idea that any such proclamation would still need to be issued in June 1865 – two months after the surrender at Appomattox – forces us to rethink how and when slavery and the Civil War really ended. And in turn it helps us recognize Juneteenth as not just a bookend to the Civil War but as a celebration and commemoration of the epic struggles of emancipation and Reconstruction.

What exactly did the events of June 19, 1865 mean? Here we face a key forgotten reality about the end of the Civil War and slavery that has been shrouded in the mythology of Appomattox. The internecine conflict and the institution of slavery could not and did not end neatly at Appomattox or on Galveston Island. Ending slavery was not simply a matter of issuing pronouncements. It was a matter of forcing rebels to obey the law. To a very real extent, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment amounted to promissory notes of freedom. The real on-the-ground work of ending slavery and defending the rudiments of liberty was done by the freedpeople in collaboration with and often backed by the force of the US Army.

Granger’s proclamation may not have brought news of emancipation but it did carry this crucial promise of force. Within weeks, fifty thousand U.S. troops flooded into the state in a late-arriving occupation. These soldiers were needed because planters would not give up on slavery. In October 1865, months after the June orders, white Texans in some regions “still claim and control [slaves] as property, and in two or three instances recently bought and sold them,” according to one report. To sustain slavery, some planters systematically murdered rebellious African-Americans to try to frighten the rest into submission. A report by the Texas constitutional convention claimed that between 1865 and 1868, white Texans killed almost 400 black people; black Texans, the report claimed, killed 10 whites. Other planters hoped to hold onto slavery in one form or another until they could overturn the Emancipation Proclamation in court.

Against this resistance, the Army turned to force. In a largely forgotten or misunderstood occupation, the Army spread more than 40 outposts across Texas to teach rebels “the idea of law as an irresistible power to which all must bow.” Freedpeople, as Haywood’s quote reminds us, did not need the Army to teach them about freedom; they needed the Army to teach planters the futility of trying to sustain slavery.
http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/hidden-history-of-juneteenth

Image: Juneteenth celebration in Austin, Texas, on June 19, 1900
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