• Susannah Colt

THE LAST TO KNOW - Juneteenth is a small step toward racial equality

You know how it feels when you are the last to know in your family about a major event like an engagement, pregnancy, or death. A common scenario these days is that a distant friend sends you a message on Facebook saying they are “sorry to hear about . . . ,” or “congratulations on being a new auntie,” or something like that. They learned the news on Facebook before you learned the news. It’s infuriating!

Now imagine being a slave in Texas in June of 1865, learning for the first time that you were freed from slavery two and one half years ago on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared emancipation for all slaves living in Confederate states, which included Texas. Two and a half years of working for free for your masters, who probably knew they were getting away with human exploitation. Now that’s infuriating!

How is it possible that Black Texans were left out of the loop? Could it be because it was illegal to teach slaves to read, so even if they did happen upon a newspaper, they couldn’t even read it? Were there really no abolitionists in Texas, who could have informed the Black folk that they were free? It turns out they were the last to learn because they were the last Confederate state to be captured by the Union Army.

What did it really mean to be free in 1863, anyway? It was the middle of the Civil War, where the Southern plantation owners were fighting to maintain their right to exploit slaves to fill their pockets with money. The plantation owners weren’t actually doing the fighting. It was the foremen, craftsmen, and poor white laborers who were doing the fighting and dying. The plantation owners sent their slaves to provide logistical support for the war so the poor whites could carry the muskets and bayonets and do the dying.

Was the Emancipation Proclamation really intended to free slaves? Not really. Lincoln actually did not have the power to free slaves, because slaves were only considered to be property under the Constitution, according to the Dred Scott Supreme Court case. Slaves were not citizens, so they had no legal rights.

Lincoln had to figure a way around the Constitution, so he used the War Powers Act to achieve his goal of winning the war and freeing the slaves. He needed a military tactical advantage over the South. The Proclamation (which in today’s language would be considered an “Executive Order”) was his tool. Lincoln, his Cabinet, Generals, and advisors realized that if they deprived the Confederate Army of the tactical support provided by slaves, it would diminish the number of Southern soldiers available to fight and give the North an advantage in the war.

The slaves, who were able to break free of their bondage, were eventually conscripted into the Northern Army and permitted to fight. Mind you, when the North did finally allow freed slaves to carry a gun in the war, they were paid a fraction of what the white soldiers were paid. The slaves eventually earned equal pay after the rise of a protest movement led by Frederick Douglass and abolitionists. It would be fair to say that the war would not have been won without slaves.

Did you know that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Tennessee? These were the Border States that decided not to join the Confederacy, but still wanted the right to keep slaves. They wanted their cake and to eat it too. It wasn’t until December 18, 1865, that slavery was finally declared illegal in Kentucky and Maryland.

December 18, 1865 marked the day the Thirteenth Amendment went into effect. It was the Thirteenth Amendment that finally ended slavery all over the country, not the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln lobbied hard for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment because he knew that when the war ended, there was no guarantee the freed slaves would retain their freedom. The Amendment passed by a two-thirds vote in Congress on January 31, 1865. It took until December 18, 1865 to achieve ratification by 27 of the 36 states to make it law.

It has taken 156 years to pass a federally recognized holiday to commemorate freedom from slavery. The push to pass a federal holiday recognizing freedom from slavery has been in the works for decades. The resistance to adopting the holiday speaks volumes about the racial division that has persisted in this country since the end of slavery. Since the end of slavery, the Black community has endured the horrors of segregation, lynching, murder by law enforcement and white supremacists, exploitation in the workplace, discrimination in banking, housing, public accommodations and healthcare, and has been forced to celebrate their freedom from slavery without the benefit of a day off for far too long.

White folk have been celebrating their independence since 1776. Congress made the Fourth of July a federal holiday in 1870. By my calculation this country owes Black folk at least 151 days of paid time off. That would only begin to repair the damage caused by decades of racism, discrimination, and violence.

Frederick Douglass eloquently explained to a crowd of white attendees at an Independence Day celebration in 1852 why the enslaved African Americans did not consider the Fourth of July to be their independence day. In his speech entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” he points out:

. . . Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to

speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your

national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and

of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended

to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the

national alter, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for

the blessing resulting from your independence to us?

The passage of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a small step in the right direction towards full equality and equity, but it is not the end. Just as the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was a small step toward police accountability, there is still a long way to go.

Sadly, in New Hampshire we have taken a huge step back from equal justice in the form of HB544 – the “Divisive Concepts” bill. What rational human being can support the passage of the Juneteenth holiday and then turn around and vote for HB544, which essentially squelches freedom of speech, enslaving our tongues? The same human being who would keep the news of the Emancipation Proclamation from the slaves they were exploiting, leaving them the last to know.

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