On Juneteenth

    Learn more about Juneteenth, a commemoration of the last day that enslaved Africans in Texas were informed by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger that they had been emancipated following a proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier without being told by their enslavers.

  • By Biko Agozino , Senior Historian
  • June 19, 2021
  • In Educate
Juneteenth

Juneteenth is a commemoration of the last day that enslaved Africans in Texas were informed by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger that they had been emancipated following a proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier without being told by their enslavers. The Order promised ‘absolute equality of personal rights between former masters and slaves’ who should now relate to one another as ‘employer and hired labor.’ The emancipated men were advised to ‘remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages’. They were prohibited from flocking to military posts in search of protection from racist mobs intent on lynching them and they were told that ‘they will not be supported in idleness’ anywhere.

The language of the General Orders, Number 3 issued by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 is problematic. It assumed that the enslavers will exclusively be the employers of labor while the enslaved will quietly work for wages in the homes owned by the former enslavers. They were expected to remain on the plantations and continue working for those who enslaved them. Any hints of the demand for reparations were dismissed as the expectations of being ‘supported in idleness’ even though working hard was known as working like a Negro. There was no expectation that people of African descent would ever move away from the plantations to seek better opportunities elsewhere (there is still no Freedom of Movement in the US constitution), nor that they could become employers of labor in their own rights, nor run for office as leaders.

Not surprisingly, Frederick Douglas and many former enslaved people did not celebrate June 19 because they preferred to commemorate January 1, 1863, when the Lincoln emancipation proclamation came into force. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr. , the ‘celebration’ of June 19 came to be preferred by African Americans perhaps because January 1 is too cold a time compared to June 19 and the original emancipation proclamation referred narrowly to people who were enslaved in confederate states, leaving hundreds of thousands enslaved in the border states to remain in captivity until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 finally stated that "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 other words, penal slavery or convict labor system remained lawful!

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People continued the celebration of Juneteenth with games in parks, voter registration drives, and barbecues. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a public holiday but it also declared the date as Confederate Heroes Day to honor those who fought to keep slavery going. After more than 40 states declared Juneteenth state public holidays, in June 2021, the US Senate voted unanimously to recognize Juneteenth as a Federal Holiday but 14 Republican Party members of Congress were the only ones in the House of Representatives to vote against the public holiday. Despite the commemoration of Juneteenth as a public holiday, white supremacy continues to be the order of the day in the criminal justice system, housing, healthcare, voting rights, education, and employment but without a significant effort to offer reparative justice to the descendants of the enslaved.

African scholars have also grappled with the abolition of slavery. Adiele Afigbo published The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southeastern Nigeria: 1885-1950 to show that although the British claimed to have abolished slavery in 1834, they had no intention of doing so in Africa where colonialism assumed the role of plantation slavery. It was only after Igbo and Ibibio women rose up to oppose what Walter Rodney termed the ‘double squeeze’ according to which maximum surpluses were extracted from workers and peasants by the colonizers through the fixing of the prices of imported manufactures as well as the prices of exported raw materials and through forced labor that the British started making serious efforts to end what they called ‘domestic slavery’. The women who declared war against colonialism in 1929 were massacred by the British and the Enugu coal miners who demanded a living wage were also massacred in 1949 to show that colonialism was just another name for slavery in Africa.

Africans should commemorate Emancipation Day, the way African Caribbeans commemorate August 1, Fus Ah August, as Emancipation Day. The day should be marked with the reading of relevant history books in schools and in the community and the demand for the ending of modern slavery and for reparative justice to be paid to people of African descent.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, 540-2317699, agozino@vt.edu