It should be widely known by now that, in Texas, enslaved Africans were denied freedom long after the date when President Abraham Lincoln, as commander-inchief of the U.S. Army, issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But Texas was not alone in doing so and it should be no surprise that the other state is Florida.
Texas and Florida are among the states that ban the teaching of African American history, using as pretext a bogus interpretation of critical race theory. They do not want Texans and Floridians of today to know about this double violation of human rights which captive Africans – at one time numbering more than three million — had to endure.
Celebration of Juneteenth began a year after U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, freeing all slaves in the state in accordance with Lincoln’s proclamation. By then, though, around 250,000 Africans had been kept in slavery for more than two years after they were supposed to have been set free. They marked their freedom starting a year later, June 19, 1866, with “Jubilee Day,” renamed “Juneteenth” in the early 1890s.
It took 156 years for the U.S. Congress and the President to ﬁnally acknowledge the importance of the occasion. It was only this year that the Senate unanimously passed a bill, on June 13, designating Juneteenth an ofﬁcial holiday. The House of Representatives did so on June 14 (by 415 to 14 votes) and President Joe Biden signed it into law on June 15.
Those who voted against the bill, all Republicans, included two each from Alabama (Mo Brooks and Mike Rogers), Arizona (Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar), California (Doug LaMalfa and Tom McClintock) and Texas (Ronny Jackson and Chip Roy); and one each from Georgia (Andrew Clyde), Kentucky (Thomas Massie), Montana (Matt Rosendale), South Carolina (Ralph Norman), Tennessee (Scott DesJarlais) and Wisconsin (Tom Tiffany).
In Florida, as Miami Herald reporter C. Isaiah Smalls II noted in a recent story, slavery ended on May 20, 1865, just a month earlier than in Texas, for the more than 60,000 Africans. They learned of it, as Smalls pointed out, after Union soldiers led by Major General Edward McCook took the news to Tallahassee, giving birth to Emancipation Day or May Day.
Even then slavery did not end throughout the country. Several states were exempted in the Lincoln proclamation: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee, as well as parts of Louisiana and Virginia. Universal emancipation came with the 13trh Amendment to the Constitution, which Congress passed on Jan. 31, 1865, and which was ratiﬁed on Dec. 6, 1865.
But the 13th Amendment preserved another form of slavery, “… as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted … That loophole has been exploited for more than 150 years and even now 16 states do so. Prisoners are “paid” between eight and 37 cents an hour, if anything — between $12 and $56 a month.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said last year that about 800,000 prison laborers produce at least $11 billion worth of goods and services annually, The Guardian reported. Much of that cheap labor is provided by African Americans, who are 36 percent of prisoners, though they comprise under 14 percent of the U.S. population.
Still, it was good that Juneteenth has been given ofﬁcial recognition. Biden was right when he said, during the Juneteenth holiday bill signing, “When we establish a national holiday, it makes an important statement. … Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery, of subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come.”
However, while the joy that is expressed annually on Juneteenth and May Day is understandable, there is little to celebrate when those who enslaved you decide to set you free. They should not have enslaved you in the ﬁrst place.
It is a happy coincidence – if that is possible given the background of human trafﬁcking and enslavement – that Juneteenth and May Day come just about two weeks before the July 4 Independence Day observances. It provides an opportunity to look at how the descendants of European Americans – the enslavers – and the descendants of African Americans – the enslaved — have beneﬁted from the fruits of slave labor.
In every indicator of economic progress, health care and other ways by which well-being and equality can be judged, African Americans rank far below European Americans. In health, for example, as The Associated Press recently pointed out, more African American children are likely to have asthma and one in two youths “experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression and about 18 percent reported being exposed to racial trauma often or very often in their life.” More African Americans are likely to have Alzheimer’s Disease and higher blood pressure and die during pregnancy.
“Multiple factors contribute to these disparities, according to the CDC and advocacy organizations, such as underlying health conditions. But more doctors and experts have pointed to the role of structural racism that has created inequitable access to health care, implicit bias and discriminatory care,” the AP reported.
That “structural racism” is a legacy of lynching, conﬁscation or destruction of property, the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws and, more recently, voter suppression and enforcement of a discriminatory criminal justice system. As an example, a Justice Department investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department found that “systemic problems” led to the killing of George Floyd and that several other such killings “resulted from ‘unconstitutional’ use of deadly force and discrimination against citizens and retaliation against protesters,” CNN reported.
For there to be a cause for celebration, there must be repentance and an apology for the crime against humanity that slavery was. There must also be ﬁnancial compensation for the free labor which the slaves were forced to provide. Some historians estimate that, in 1860, the economic value of a slave was about $1,000 and that the overall value of the four million slaves was $4 billion. Researcher Thomas Craemer estimated that slave labor would be worth about $5.9 trillion today, The Washington Post reported in 2016.
There must also be repudiation of those who are trying to erase or minimize the history of Africans in America and contributions to making the U.S. what it is today and, instead, persist in glorifying the past. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis – candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — recently vowed that, if elected, they would change the name of Fort Liberty in North Carolina back to Fort Bragg after a slave-owning Confederate general. Speaking on June 9 at the Carolina Republican state convention, DeSantis described “Fort Bragg” as “an iconic name and iconic base,” adding that “we’re not gonna let political correctness run amok in North Carolina.” A day later, Pence pledged, “We will end the political correctness in the hallways of the Pentagon, and North Carolina will once again be home to Fort Bragg.” First North Carolina, then the rest of the country.
Some others envision a different future for the nation. They include historian Peniel E. Joseph of the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote in a CNN opinion column, “Juneteenth reminds us of the unyielding faith and dignity of generations of Black folks whose embrace of an imperfect brand of freedom helped pave the way for contemporary efforts to ﬁnally and permanently advance racial justice and democracy – for Black people and for all Americans.”
Alas, though, those efforts are really not contemporary. These are times when sincere efforts to make the union less imperfect are being frustrated at every opportunity.