Juneteenth, a history

On September 22, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, giving the Confederate states in rebellion a last chance to return to the Union, using the freeing of enslaved people behind Confederate lines as a consequence for continuing their succession. January 1, 1863, with Confederate states still in succession, President Lincoln signed the Proclamation, and executive order, freeing enslaved people in Confederate states in rebellion. The Proclamation did not free enslaved people in the slave states not in rebellion, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri (as well as what would become West Virginia), also known as the Border States; nor in non-battleground states, like Texas.

In Union-held areas in the Confederate states, enslaved people were freed the day the Proclamation went into effect. The Proclamation also ended the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed by Congress September 18th as part of the Compromise of 1850, ordering escaped enslaved people to be returned to slaveholders; now enslaved people able to escape from bondage in Confederates states were free; as long as they made it to Union territory. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, a Federal law written to enforce Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 (the Fugitive Slave Clause) of the United States Constitution, requiring return of runaway enslaved people to slaveholders. The new Fugitive Slave Act penalized officials who did not arrest and return alleged runaway enslaved people. A black person could be arrested and turned over to a slaveholder based on as little as the claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. In 1855 the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Act unconstitutional, the only high state court to do so. In 1859 the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the State court- the Fugitive Slave Clause, after all, was written into the Constitution of this country.

Lincoln’s government took a strategic march towards Emancipation. In December 1861, just over a year before he signed the Proclamation, in his first “State of the Union Address” (then referred to as an annual message, given in writing) Lincoln wrote of human rights over property rights, and supported legislation to find a solution for the contraband enslaved persons escaped from the South, hiding in the North, offering, perhaps that their freedom could be purchased from their former slaveholders with federal taxes. The monetary implications of slavery were not lost on Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who, in calling for war against the Confederate states, noted that Emancipation would ruin the economy of the Southern states, weakening their ability to succeed.

While we can cynically view Emancipation as a shrewd war strategy; given the inherent racism written into the Constitution, with the Three-Fifths Compromise (Article 1, Section 2), the Fugitive Slave Act, and the purposeful misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment- claiming enslaved people as property, and not persons with rights to life, liberty, and property, Emancipation could never have passed in peacetime. It was only in wartime, as Commander in Chief, under Article 2, Section 2: Presidential Power, that Lincoln could claim martial power to free enslaved persons, as an act of war. In less than two years after his election, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law. It would take years for enslaved people to be freed.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not end the Civil War, it did not free all enslaved people. Even the end of the Civil War did not mean immediate freedom for enslaved black people. Almost two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, General Robert E. Lee’s retreat then limping surrender at Appomattox Court House April 9th, 1865 forebode the reluctant slow surrender of Confederate troops across the country. Enslaved black people remained enslaved after the end of the war until Union troops marched in to take control of Confederate-held territory. Slavery was still in practice even in some Border States after the end of the war. Delaware and Kentucky did not abolish slavery until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, December 1865. Of the other Border States, Maryland lead the way, abolishing slavery November 1, 1864. Missouri and West Virginia abolished slavery in 1865.

So freedom rolled across the United States, making its slow procession with Union troops to Texas. As Texas was not a battleground state, the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to black people who escaped from Texas to a free state, or Union-held Confederate territory. Texas remained a slave state through the war, and an attractive haven for slaveholders. In 1850, 5 years after Texas was annexed, 58,000 enslaved people lived in Texas. In 1860, before the war, the number had risen to almost 183,000. By the time Union General Gordon Granger took Galveston Island, June 18th, 1865, the population of enslaved black people in Texas had swelled to 250,000.

June 19th, 1865, General Granger addressed the citizens of Texas at Galveston, and read aloud General Order No. 3, the emancipation of all people held as slaves, freeing the enslaved people in the farthest outpost of the South, and once again unifying the United States. Texas was the first state to officially established Juneteenth, June 19th, as a state holiday in 1980. In 2015, Maryland became the 43rd state to recognize June 19th as a commemorative day. Today 45 of 50 states recognize Juneteenth. Juneteenth is yet to be recognized as a United States national holiday.

 

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