In the mid-1930s, Pierce Harper shared his memories of the overthrow of slavery in east Texas with Fred Dibble and Rheba Beehler, writers assigned to record testimony given by people who had been enslaved under U.S. and confederate law.1 He remembered well what the movement of the United States army in Texas and Louisiana meant to families like his across the United States. “Late in 63, they [The United States army and the confederacy] had a fight at a place called Kingston, only 12 miles from our place, talking how the jacks go, guns going off when they was fighting. The Yankees beat and settled down here and the colored folks flocked down on there and when they got to Yankee lines they was safe… they put them to work fighting for freedom. My mother and sister run away to the Yankees and they paid them big money to wash for them.”2 Harper and his communities clearly knew what they had to do to seize their freedom during the Civil War. As he shared his memories of that extended transition to freedom, one line of his narrative has been carved out and made part of the public memory of Juneteenth: “they read the emancipation law to the Colored People and they stayed up half the night at Mr. Harper’s, singing and shouting. They wasn’t slaves no more.”3
Pierce Harper’s earlier testimony made it clear people knew that – after 1863 - slavery ended across U.S. lines; Harper’s narrative emphasized what his communities did to make freedom real after June 19, 1865. After completing that sentence, Pierce Harper touched on the economic consequences of the U.S. army’s occupation of what had been Confederate headquarters: “the master [Confederate plantation owners] had to give them a half or third of what he made. Our master parceled out land to them and told them to work it themselves and some done real well.”4 Pierce Harper emphasized the active role his immediate family and his co-workers took to get their freedom in 1863, and the property and labor they took back from the Harper plantation with the arrival of General Gordon Granger and the United States Army to east Texas on June 19, 1865, barely two months after the U.S. military victory over the Confederacy in Virginia in April 1865. Harper clearly connected his community’s ability to reap the fruit of their labor to their work with a federal military presence that could forestall a slaver’s attempt to force them back into bondage. Moreover, given that it took another 6 months for the United States to ratify the 13th amendment, African American communities during this liminal time helped force state authorities to recognize the end of enslavement in Texas before it was ratified into constitutional law. The 12 months between June 1865 and 1866 are a key passage in the largest and most consequential slave revolt in the Americas: the Civil War.5
Juneteenth should force us all to embrace the central place enslaved communities played in challenging slavery and exploitation, counter an ongoing push to reduce the meaning of freedom to the mere opportunity to sell your time and labor, and remember the role federal authorities also play in guaranteeing everyone’s “right to have rights.”6 In a manner analogous to Memorial Day in South Carolina, the celebrations that took place in Black majority towns across Texas and Louisiana centered Black communities’ roles in the overthrow of slavery, the continuous push by African American communities to make freedom meaningful and rewarding. Juneteenth helps us remember what Thavolia Glymph observed, that “enslaved women fought the reformation of white homes in exile, and led efforts to occupy or destroy the homes planters left behind. Previously denied the right to move about freely or have a free home, enslaved women reconfigured the spaces of power on plantations, and a sizeable number left them altogether. As refugees, black women trespassed the space of men on the battle front protested the idea of a Union war against the confederacy that was not also a war for emancipation.”7 Moreover, Juneteenth puts a community spin on the 1.5 million casualties and the national sacrifice forced on the United States by people violently committed to enslavement, white racial hierarchy and labor exploitation.8 Even as federal authorities abandoned their commitment to political equality that got forged in the Civil War, the persistent gathering of families and communities for Emancipation Day, Memorial Day and Juneteenth since 1866 and the ongoing public commentary that has happened in these gatherings on the meaning of the end of slavery for over 155 years should remind us that freedom is not over.9
Juneteenth is a living reminder of how tentative our commitment to a shared equality can be. It is also a yearly reminder of how marginalized communities shape powerful and important counter-memories in countries often hostile to their presence. I can only hope that the same unanimous vote cast in the Senate to celebrate the overthrow of slavery can translate into votes defending universal access to the ballot, improving work conditions, and fostering a culture that provides a level of peace for Black families in this country.
- Pierce Harper, “Ex-slave stories (Texas), page 1,” compiled and edited by Fred Dibble and Rheeba Beehler,” Federal Writer’s Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2, Easter-King, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936 to 1938, (Washington: Works Progress Administration / Library of Congress), https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.162/?sp=116&st=text
- W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction: an essay toward a history of the part which Black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007)
- First read in Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 10. Enunciated in the United States Supreme Court by Earl Warren, Afroyim v. Rusk, 387 U.S. 253 (1967).
- Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: the Civil War’s battles for Home, Freedom and Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 6.
- As of June 17, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed 598,301 deaths from COVID-19. See “United States COVID-19 Cases, Deaths, and Laboratory Testing (NAATs) by State, Territory, and Jurisdiction,” CDC.Gov, https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesper100klast7days, accessed, 06/18/2021.
- Shennette Garret Scott, Rebecca Cummings Richardson, and Venita Dillard-Allen, “’When peace come’: teaching the significance of Juneteenth,” Black History Bulletin 76:2 (Summer/Fall 2013), 19-25.