Here’s what really happened on Juneteenth
This is an updated version of a column originally published on June 18, 2021.
I have participated in Juneteenth observations for years, long before its designation as a national holiday in 2021. And for years, the prevailing narrative behind the holiday – that it marks the day when enslaved African Americans learned they were free after the end of the Civil War – left me with bittersweet feelings at best.
Last year, those feelings turned to outrage.
My change in emotion came after learning from historian friends that the oft-repeated tale of Union soldiers arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to tell slaves of their freedom is pure fiction. Not because they weren’t legally freed 2 1/2 months earlier, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Or because they were technically freed 2 1/2 years before, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slavery null and void in areas under rebellion, very much including Texas.
Rather, I now know, the big lie is the incessantly repeated canard that Galveston’s po’ ign’ant Black folks didn’t know they was free, and that U.S. Major Gen. Gordon Granger had to read a proclamation to spell it out for them.
In fact, they most certainly did know.
“We knowed what was goin’ on in [the war] all the time,” Felix Haywood, who was enslaved in Texas, is recorded as saying in an account by historian Gregory P. Downs.
Haywood was in no way an anomaly, but representative of the majority of the enslaved populace, Downs asserts. He further quotes Haywood saying, “We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.”
If Galveston’s Blacks already knew they were free, obviously their slaveholders did, too — yet nonetheless kept them in bondage, not by cunning or deceit or ignorance, but by the brute force and tactics of dehumanizing torture they had been using for 200 years.
General Granger didn’t bring liberation by words on a scroll but by troops with fixed bayonets.
From a Jewish perspective, this changes the analogy, popularized in so many intergroup Juneteenth celebrations, from the Exodus from Egypt to the liberation of Dachau — only with the Nazis still trying to work the inmates to death.
And if this paradigm shift from the popular narrative isn’t explicit enough, it gets even worse when you learn that June 19 wasn’t the magical day that ended American slavery once and for all, either.
In October 1865, white Texans in some regions still claimed and controlled slaves as property, Downs wrote, citing historical records, including two or three that document continued sales. “To sustain slavery, some planters systematically murdered rebellious African-Americans to try to frighten the rest into submission,” he continued, citing a report by the Texas constitutional convention stating white Texans killed almost 400 Black people between 1865 and 1868.
On the outside chance that Down’s 2015 essay may have been superseded by new historical research, I spoke with him myself. It hasn’t been, he said, reiterating; “It’s not that General Granger was giving information to the enslaved people. He was giving it to the masters” — at the barrel of a gun.
That better explains another aspect of the discomfort I had with Juneteenth — the holiday’s name, which suggests Black English tinged with a slave mind that wouldn’t know what day it was settled on June somethin’.
While the vernacular never bothered me, I now know that what I thought was symbolic of my ancestors’ supposed uncertainty was in fact an accurate description of a precise liberation day that never came.
None of this is to say that African Americans, or all Americans, shouldn’t celebrate the well-intentioned holiday to Black freedom. But if you’re still clutching to any vestige of the popular myth, consider that well before Lee’s surrender, with the Confederacy clearly losing the war, slaveholders from throughout the South relocated their human property to Texas in advance of Union troops to preserve slavery for as long as they could.
Sound familiar? Like the forced marches out of the death camps in 1945?
All this picks up where my historical knowledge gets more complete with the disputed presidential election of 1876. The deal ultimately worked out named Republican Rutherford B. Hayes president in exchange for removing federal troops from the still-unreconstructed South.
If that military presence sounds benign, consider it analogous to United Nations peacekeeping forces in places like Rwanda, who weren’t dispatched for the niceties of promoting civility, but to keep one side from committing genocide against another.
And that’s exactly what happened after 1876, with the turnback of Reconstruction, the imposition of Jim Crow, and the mob rule of the Ku Klux Klan and the lynch mobs for the next 80 years.
Or really, to the present day, with Black voter suppression alive and well by the descendants of those slaveholders and their sympathizers, and the latest nonsensical assault on truth — the banning of critical race theory in schools.
Reports show a good number of those advocating the ban don’t even know what critical race theory is. For them, I’ll explain: It’s called teaching what actually happened, and what didn’t. And what happened in Galveston on June 19, 1865, is that General Granger arrived to forcibly liberate Black people who everyone knew were free from intransigent slaveholders who refused to abide by the law.
That’s the true history of Juneteenth — along with a message that somehow has eluded the South and their white-supremacist inheritors today:
You lost the damned war. Surrender already.