By Pastor Yolanda Y. Williams
You might have heard of Juneteenth described as a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Well…that’s not quite accurate. Juneteenth, now in its second year as a federal holiday, is celebrated on June 19. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about the anniversary of Juneteenth and what it represents. Offered is some clarification based on what I have learned.
Slavery is defined as one human being owning another human being. According to Orlando Patterson in “Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study,” the enslaver perpetuates and reinforces a social death, the state in which a human being is not accepted as being fully human. This condition is passed on to one's progeny.
The worldwide Anti-Slavery Movement (1830-1870), among other factors, fueled former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, first announced as General Order No. 3 (June 19, 1865), then ratified by Congress as the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (January 31, 1865). Section 1 of that amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
In June 1865, Union soldiers of the 13th Army Corps arrived in Galveston, Texas. Major General Gordon Granger and his men marched throughout the city, reading General Order No. 3, and proclaiming that all slaves were free. One of the places they stopped was at the Reedy-Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, home to a Black congregation. The anniversary of this event began to be celebrated first in Texas, then throughout the south, and in northern cities with large populations of southern Africans.
However, the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth did not entirely end the enslavement or forced involuntary servitude of Africans, because the amendment legalized slavery and involuntary servitude if it is used as a punishment for a crime. This loophole kept slavery alive through the prison system and penal labor programs that swept through the south in the 1870s. This prison and penal labor system was supported by under-the-table deals between former plantation owners, police, and the court system. As a result, Black men and boys, and some women and girls, found themselves “ín the system” with life sentences. Many Black people were re-enslaved and often sent to work at the same plantations where they were previously enslaved.
Prison, penal labor, and the peonage system (or debt servitude, where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work) were not the only examples of re-enslavement. Kidnapping and human trafficking were also used to re-enslave Black people. Letters from the 1900s that can be found in the National Archives include pleas for help by parents whose children had been kidnapped and forced into slavery working in fields or factories. Similarly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has in its repositories letters documenting re-enslavement through unjust legal practices, kidnappings, and trafficking.
"The total number of those re-enslaved in the seventy-five years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II can't be precisely determined, but based on the records that do survive, we can safely say it happened to hundreds of thousands,” Douglas A. Blackmon wrote in “America’s Twentieth-Century Slavery.”
Historian, author, and civil rights activist Antoinette Harrell’s work in peonage research litigation has uncovered cases of enslavement occurring even up and into the 1970s.
Unfortunately, the slavery of Black people in the U.S. did not end with Article 13 or with Juneteenth.
Juneteenth honors a moment in history when a Black community in Galveston, Texas received the good news regarding the Emancipation Proclamation. While not indicative of an end to slavery, its celebration does have a place alongside other celebrations of freedom, like the Fourth of July, as it represents the concept of freedom. Likewise, it bears a place alongside celebrations like the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., as it honors progress made toward providing full and equal rights under the law for the Black citizens of the United States, another promise of freedom.
This having been said, Juneteenth must be celebrated as a trumpet call to build upon past good works, ensuring there are no rollbacks to freedom, and that there is steady progress toward enforced access to the rights afforded all by our Constitution.
Pastor Yolanda Y. Williams serves Glenwood United Parish.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church