Thanks to the efforts of Black Lives Matter protesters, and to America’s ongoing reckoning with police brutality and entrenched racism, more Americans who aren’t black are hearing about Juneteenth this year. (No, President Donald Trump, it’s not all about you.) Gov. Ralph Northam introduced legislation to make June 19 a paid state holiday in Virginia; companies like Twitter and Square (and Slate!) gave their employees the day off; Google added it to its calendar of U.S. holidays.
Juneteenth, our former colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote in a 2014 argument for the addition of the day to the calendar of federal holidays, is a celebration of emancipation but also a “celebration of the commitment” to “liberty and equality.” This idea—that the day’s significance lies in our stated “commitment,” not necessarily our accomplishments—should be key to our celebration. As Bouie pointed out, the concept of Juneteenth resonates in part because the day fell in 1865, two-and-a-half years after the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, showing how gradual and patchwork enslaved people’s wartime achievement of freedom was. Emancipation, Juneteenth tells us, was a process.
In 2020, in the middle of a pandemic and recession that have been way worse for black people, I’m thinking on Juneteenth about how the fable of emancipation contains within itself a story of white failure. Take a closer look at this “Circular” that Union Gen. Gordon Granger ordered placed in the Galveston Daily News on July 7, 1865, to notify Texans that “all slaves are free.” It was Granger’s arrival in Galveston on June 19, 1865, that brought formal emancipation to Texas—the last former slave state to hold people in captivity. (Speaking of the patchwork nature of liberation, some people from other parts of the South even brought those they held in bondage to Texas, to be able to retain their “property” for longer.)
As a document of Juneteenth, Granger’s “Circular” foreshadows how reluctant the North was going to be to support the freedpeople in their freedom. The first paragraph of the notice speaks of “absolute equality” between “former masters and slaves,” and tells the newly minted “employers” that “cruel treatment or improper use of authority” would not be tolerated. (That last part feels like a near-criminal misreading of the nature of this interpersonal situation.) But the bulk of the text is aimed not at former “masters,” but at freedpeople.
No persons formerly slaves will be permitted to travel on the public thoroughfares without passes or permits from their employers. … They will not be subsisted in idleness, or in any way except as employees of the Government, or in cases of extreme destitution or sickness. … Idleness is sure to be productive of vice. … No person, white or black … able to labor, will be subsisted by the Government in idleness, and thus hang as a dead weight upon those who are disposed to bear their full share of the public burdens.
This is part of the story of emancipation, too: the way that white Northerners extended a provisional vision of “freedom,” while requiring hard labor, under whatever terms possible. In the 19th century, the brutal folk adage “root, hog, or die”—a reference to the practice of turning pigs into the forest and letting them fend for themselves—reminded Americans that they must be self-reliant or perish. Approaching Reconstruction, mixing the ideology of “free labor” with a dose of racism, the federal government made it clear that Northern whites would not make an exception to this rule of self-reliance for the formerly enslaved.
The reluctance to assist was an artifact of cultural belief about individual responsibility, but it was a function of Northern whites’ racism. In her Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South After the Civil War, historian Carole Emberton writes that a protective impulse among Northerners who wanted to shield freedpeople from “abuse and intimidation” in their relationships with their former “masters” brushed up against “an equally strong impulse to discipline ex-slaves, to reform their degraded spirits and control their laboring bodies.” Northerners, even some of those who were working for the Freedmen’s Bureau and were ostensibly on the freedpeople’s “side,” were wary of offering material support for people who were going through a great upheaval. Even under these most extreme circumstances, they feared the strings-free fulfilling of basic needs like food and shelter would lead to “dependency.”
Northerners, Emberton argued, also had limited sympathy for freedpeople because they had the idea that “black suffering” would be “a condition of freedom”—that the formerly enslaved must also pay a “price” for their liberation, which came at the cost of so much Union blood. Emberton cites words from Capt. Charles Soule, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in Orangeburg, South Carolina, who spoke to freedpeople in June 1865, the same month that Granger showed up in Galveston. He thought the people he was charged with caring for were asking too much—shelter, food, medical care—and told them that suffering was their lot. “You are now free, but you must know that the only difference you can feel yet, between slavery and freedom, is that neither you nor your children can be bought or sold,” Soule said. “You may have a harder time this year than you have ever had before; it will be the price you pay for your freedom.”
Because the Freedmen’s Bureau believed that the quickest way to get freedpeople supporting themselves would be to incorporate them into the workforce as soon as possible, they tried everything they could to match people with jobs, including moving them from state to state, writes historian Jim Downs in Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Accustomed to a model of social order that regarded a male laborer as a support for a family, officials from the North thought of the formerly enslaved as healthy, unencumbered men, who could work in the fields for their daily bread. This left many people who didn’t fit this description, or weren’t supported by anyone fitting this description, without any subsistence at all. As a consequence, elderly, young, sick, or disabled freedpeople, not to mention mothers caring for young children, struggled. While some Northerners involved in Reconstruction, especially those working for benevolent associations, recognized this problem and tried to help, most didn’t.
Frederick Douglass said in a speech in Elmira, New York, in 1880, after Reconstruction had ended, that the “old master class is today triumphant, and the newly-enfranchised class in a condition but little above that in which they were found after the rebellion.” To explain this, Douglass pointed back at the very moment of emancipation, and the fact that freedom didn’t come with material support. “The old master class was not deprived of the power of life or death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave,” Douglass said. “They could not, of course, sell their former slaves, but they retained the power to starve them to death, and wherever this power is held there is the power of slavery.”
This is an angle on the story of Emancipation that is hard to read about. It’s one thing to believe that Reconstruction failed because of Southern reactionary intransigence, and Southerners’ liberal use of suppressive violence against the formerly enslaved among them. It’s another to realize how parsimonious and begrudging the North was to the people who were suddenly “free,” but who had nothing—and how that lack of support dragged freedpeople down, right from the beginning. This, too, is part of Juneteenth, especially for white people—or it should be.
For more on Reconstruction, listen to Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie’s Slate Academy podcast series.