Platform speech by Muriel Tillinghast (used with permission)
July 7, 2019
It was an honor to delve into this annal of American history. It allowed me to probe some historical confusions and to, hopefully, correct a few misconceptions — mine and probably yours as well — relative to this particular holiday with a funny name. Let’s start with the word itself, “Juneteenth.” It hit my ears as peculiar, a made-up term attributed to slaves, a people with little literacy and peculiar speech as compared with the language of other classes. So, I probed.
Juneteenth has a particular significance — I will get to that in a minute as that is the subject of this speech — but the word’s sound should not have hit me as strange. English and American English, in particular, is full of these kinds of words — portmanteaus, that is the blending of two or more unrelated words and making up a third word with a different meaning. For example, smoke and fog to make smog or motor and hotel to make motel and breakfast and lunch to make brunch — they are all part of the American vernacular, our everyday words. Recognizing this linguistically settles this odd-sounding word issue. This is a regularity within the practice of neologism, creating new words and sounds as the language expands to take in new concepts and expressions.
So why does Juneteenth make us raise our eyebrows if just a bit? Let me say that for me, it is a word not often in use and that rests deep within the racist place in me and most assuredly in all of us, which makes words coming from non-European sources, at the best, sound a bit “outside,” if you know what I mean. I won’t pursue this line of discussion, but this reality starts our journey . . . .
June and “teen” makes June 19. No one seems to know who or how the “th.” got added; the “th” being a suffix forming nouns of action (birth) or abstract nouns denoting quality or condition (depth; length; warmth). Hmmm, not bad for an illiterate people.
Let’s start with the word, “Juneteenth.” It is a portmanteau, a word combining the sound of two words to make the third word with new meaning, like break and fast being breakfast, or breakfast and lunch combined for the word brunch. Back to the story and the times. Who among the slaves had a calendar, a pen, and paper? Who knew what this man with the paper had to say reading from the Ashton Villa, the gathering place where important things and important people functioned? Which date was the day of this proclamation, who knew? Common sense may have told the slaves that it was after the 10th and before the 20th for reasons we do not know. It may also be that the date was overhead as it may have been cast about in talk at the landing on that fateful day.
In the period of this action in 1865, it was a criminal offense with fatal consequences for a slave to read and write. Even for Free Blacks (not Freedmen as Blacks were to be called after the Emancipation Proclamation), the public display of being literate was considered uppity and could result in fatal consequences as well. So, from the onset of this event, the slaves were to hear words they never thought they would hear during their lifetime, words from a man they had never seen before and would see only for a brief period during this time of great chaos and upheaval. Not only was the United States government bringing a message to the Blacks, but it was also bringing the Civil War to a close. A few reactions for history’s sake were noted; most whites were not all welcoming or celebratory as they stood among the listening slaves, but I am getting ahead of my story.
When I started researching this historic occasion, I was continuously surprised about how many details were wanting, how many gaps appeared in putting this story together. There is a lack of comprehensive information readily available in any single place. Maybe it has something to do with where our textbooks are written — coming from Texas there is yet to be any significant mention of slavery itself. There’s hope though, in 2020 and thereafter, there will be some correction in that regard. We’ll see. Researching this subject allowed me an opportunity to act as a sleuth, looking into the back channels to connect what dots I could. Today, you will be the beneficiary of my efforts. Here we go. . . .
Juneteenth is the final chapter of the Civil War. Subscribing to whether that war actually closed is a matter of perspective; but, whatever side you are on, this was most assuredly the closing of one style of life with the reluctant and often violent opening of another. This Texas chapter takes place at the last major outposts of the Confederate Army. The Union’s presence with almost 2,000 men and horses had orders to subdue all military action. The actual results were to run the confederate hornets out of their nests sending them home, into extinction or silence.
The Emancipation Proclamation authored by Abraham Lincoln, was earlier on a means of breaking the psychological back of the Confederate psychosis and rendering their chief means of raising their required finances inert. Slaves were of a calculated collective value of over #3 billion dollars, not a sum to take lightly. But by the time of the Galveston pacification, Lincoln was dead (April 4, 1865). The federal government headquartered in Washington, D.C., was in flux gravely bowed by so many actions and counter-actions in a high-stakes power shift. Texas, so far off from the nerve centers of the east coast, was always late on the change of scene. Not only did Texas get the official message late, parts of it never seemed to receive the message at all.
There is speculation, of course, why this occurred. Surely, there were enough scouts to have brought the message forward. Did murder silence the messengers or was there a general conspiracy to ignore this strange directive and carry on as usual? There are no real answers. One that does stand up is that there would have been no enforceability in areas where fighting was active. So until Texas was under Union military control, the notice would have served no real purpose beforehand.
Interestingly, this final chapter to the largest bloodbath in American history remains a footnote in the larger annals of American history and I wonder why does that remain the case? Nonetheless, given the willfulness and perseverance of many Blacks in Texas with their very few white allies, the event and location where the proclamation was made is remembered, and celebrated, but was not so at the time.
A word more on commemorations, Juneteenth is called in some quarters Emancipation Day. It became a state holiday in Texas in 1980, and as it has been in Texas, the day has been consistently celebrated outside in 44 states and internationally in approximately 20-odd countries. I think that this is grand. But, why aren’t there more celebrations? Why is there no national event recognition particularly since there are no other events set aside to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation? Yet we know so much about Christopher Columbus, the man who brought slavery to the New World. There are always reasons, but let me give you a few things to ponder:
One, the slave community was overwhelmingly illiterate — made so as mandated by the slave codes which were universally observed by almost all members of the dominant society. Who would write any of this down? Among other essentials of the day, what about the names of the ships that brought in the troops? Is that memorialized anywhere?
Two, white Texans were generally overtly hostile to the slaves both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Formerly, with some protection as slaves, Blacks now had very little to none. They went from being an economic asset to being a financial and social liability — at least that is how white society saw this — always quick to determine the dollars and cents of a matter.
Three, white Texans generally hated those dreadful Yankees now in their midst reading this General Order #3 declaring the end of slavery. That paper declared the death knell of the Southern Cause — something that many of them held on to with an abiding faith.
All of this rolled out at the same time along with the beginning chapter of the Union’s occupation. This was an eventful day, one probably long-anticipated, but also deeply resented by whites and a little beyond many who upon hearing that they were free to go wherever had no place to go. That notwithstanding, many took to just leaving where they now stood or reported for work. Texans call this “The Scatter,” as the former slaves now sought out family members from whom they had been separated. Putting families back together, that was the slaves’ priority. Whites despaired that there would be no return to how things use to be. It is little wonder, then, that most of the details of that day are missing.
Returning to the story. . . Juneteenth doesn’t start in Texas. As a working document, the Emancipation Proclamation began on a date the economic Panic of 1857, in July of 1862. But to get in front of this rolling event, let us take a step even further back. Social and political scientists would call this an examination of some precipitating events. So here we go. . . .
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President on November 6, 1860, the Deep South roiled. As part of a campaign speech in 1858, two years earlier in a run for the Senate in his home state of Illinois, Lincoln fingered a nerve. He was a Republican. The Democratic Party in this period was the party of “slave-holding” interests; the Republican Party was the party of the free north. Even though he was virtually an unknown, Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech signaled to the ever vigilant pro-slavers in his state — which had strong anti and pro-slavery divisions — that he was not entirely “their man.” He argued against Stephan Douglas that the nation could not continue to exist half slave and half free or words. The national direction would have to be entirely one way or another — slave or free. On this, there could be no compromise!
Taking a further step back, the 1850s was a decade fraught and layered with economic, political and social upheavals, one after another. To name a few: the Fugitive Slave Act followed by the economic Panic of 1857, the Dred Scott Decision, the Missouri Compromise then “Kansas, Bloody Kansas.” The latter is attributed to John Brown’s effort to respond to riot conditions in both Kansas and Nebraska stirred by vigilantes throughout the territories who traveled and pillaged to intimidate voters to support slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a knockout success, punctured holes in old ignorances about slavery. All the time progressives, like Frederick Douglass, maintained contact with a network of men — mostly — in the president’s orbit. America was moving from a simmering set of conflicts to that of a boiling pot. In his public messages and conversations, Lincoln continued the “a house divided cannot stand” commentaries and so it was a small step to assume the worse was in store for pro-slavers from the Lincoln administration.
Not an abolitionist, Lincoln, nonetheless was associated with the thinking that slavery into the West and Northwest must stop and he hoped that the union would hold together despite strains. Preemptively, five weeks after Lincoln’s election, and approximately 119 days before his Monday, March 4, 1861, swearing-in ceremony, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Within the next two months Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit.
By February 4 or 8th — depending on who you read — in 1861, the sectional rift was more than words, a formal confederation of secessionist states had been established. And, on the ground, war talk was quickly moving up and beyond a rumble to a shout!
Bolstered by broad and active local and state-wide defiance to what they perceived would be hostile federal policies — though none had yet been made public or had otherwise materialized — the seceding southern states had quickly organized themselves into the Confederate States of America, seven states whose leadership pledged to join as sovereign states for “The Cause” They had a proper name, officers, uniforms and the like — even letterhead. The Union expected to make short shrift of things. However, their defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, when Washingtonians had arrayed themselves in “picnic-like fashion” to observe, they had falsely assumed that outcome. They expected that that fight would be a one-off. It was not. Lincoln now knew then that the South was in it for the long haul and consequently so was he.
A country needs a mission or a cause or a reason to be. The Confederacy “Cause” for them was being left to do what they wanted to do: raise cotton, tobacco, rice, beets, and cane, raise hogs and cattle and do business with whom they chose, with no interference whatsoever regarding their labor pool. They rallied a united revolutionary front — now barely some 60 years after the ink was dry on the American Revolution. They would hear nothing whatsoever about any interference with their labor base with its endless resources. Southern wealth turned exponentially on the exploited labor of slaves.
April 12, 1861, Pierre Beauregard, the first general of the Confederacy organized the call to war with the firing — continuous I might add — on the Union seaport of Fort Sumter, effectively serving notice for war. By July 21st, there was the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) as I have already mentioned.
The Confederacy raised a military by conscription of close to a million men and had a battle plan or two. Their leadership was generally well trained with a number of them from West Point and other military schools. Spies worked both sides. The South worked tenaciously and often in the light of day to secure its advantage. The Union, too, secured its own reconnaissance, establishing a naval blockage covering 3,500 miles of coastland closing off significant port trade and through other means efficiently blocking the south’s ability to borrow money abroad. Being in a state of war, both sides established way too many controls for us to talk about here, but suffice it to say, however, that tensions grew inside the homes of families and in the halls of state.
Early on, Lincoln and his cabinet remained hopeful that things would or could be turned around, that the split would only be temporary, but now that door was shut fast! The Union’s quick blockade of principal ports slowly began to cripple the flow of funds for troops and trade. The blockage could reduce activity, but it could not eliminate it: the export of cotton was a critical product provided the funding for the Confederacy as was the importation of various supplies for other needs. Over time and by the close of the war, the Union’s economic strategy here had unquestionably been effective.
Significantly, the Union had a poor presence on the battlefield. And, Lincoln wanted desperately to hold on to the border states, some of which held slaves. A little flushed with a hard-won success at Antietam, Lincoln felt that the Union now had sufficient clout to provide a realistic threat which the emancipation of slaves would theoretically do. In that reality however and without the Emancipation’s “shield,” thousands of slaves were running to the Union lines particularly as the army moved into their areas. It seemed time.
On September 22 soon after the Battle at Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Program. In it, he declared that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states shall then be, thenceforward, and forever free.” It didn’t free a single slave, but it transformed the Union’s fight from purely the preservation of the Union to something loftier, the battle for human freedom. No, the Emancipation Proclamation would not provide any magical change in circumstances or attitude. In fact, the backlash effect caused sometimes horrible results unless the ex-slaves were successful in escaping north or finding that rare respite. The Feds were going to have to think beyond just winning the war; what was going to happen to the Blacks?
q Note: Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the border states. Of the states that were exempted from the proclamation, Maryland (1864), Missouri (1865), Tennessee (1865), and West Virginia (1865) abolished slavery before the war ended. However, Delaware and Kentucky did not abolish slavery until December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.]
Texas was a principal source of smuggling for the Confederacy from 1860 until the port of Galveston was closed by the Union. With 385 miles of coastline, the gulf coast was close to impossible to control. Moreover, Texas had scores of islands with a rich river system traveling inland with which having the right kind of boats and gear — the kind specially made in Galveston and other island communities along the coast — gave great opportunity for clandestine trading. Galveston, Texas was a smuggler’s paradise. England was desperately dependent on southern cotton for its mills in Lancashire and Manchester and its banking houses were ever ready to let loans, if only arrangements could be made.
Did I mention that as the next-door neighbor Mexico — Texas as an independent state being newly wrenched from those hands some twenty-four years earlier — proved a useful vehicle to evade the Union’s blockage? Vigorous trade with Europe was carried through the Caribbean and South American locations via sympathetic shippers and planters. Between Mexico, Cuba, Barbados and points even further south, the Confederacy continued as best they could to carry on traffic and trade without too much interference from the blockage using this channel of access. In 1860, of the 300,000 bales of cotton shipped out, 200,000 came from Galveston.
Do you think that’s taking matters too far? Well, did you know that among the various “final shots” fired for “The Cause “ one set of shots was fired on June 22, 1865, by the Confederate raider, a ship, the CSS Shenandoah in the Bering Sea. That ship had been a repurposed British trade ship and was used to terrorize Union commercial ships long after the cessation of other hostile acts. Now that’s a piece of history no one talks about.
Now that you understand some of the length and breadth of the South’s operations, we can skip most of the rest of the battle information.
Most of us were taught that the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia in the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Now, this took a bit of understanding on my part, was Lee’s signing the whole Magilla? It was not.
This confederation was a union of sovereign states who apparently needed/wanted and required separate jurisdictions and independent authority particularly as the war slowed down. That is, each state’s military apparatus had to be met and brought to heel on its own. So, I followed the battle lines starting with Lee’s signing.
There were only 7 states in this southern debacle, but it still a great deal of land and ports to cover. The fact that the South was largely rural did not make communication any easier. Other forces in the Eastern Theatre of the war surrendered from east to west, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana surrendered in early May. I am mentioning May 9th particularly, because the cavalry troops at Gainesville, Alabama were under the control of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a name that rings in infamy even today. But you see that the surrendering process was moving at a pace west.
[Note: Nathan Bedford Forrest was the convenor/orginator of the KKK. He is also the murdering leader of the Fort Pillow Massacre.]
On May 10th, President, Andrew Johnson declared the armed resistance — an interesting choice of words — virtually over. That was relatively easy to do from Washington. For everywhere else the fighting in some form continued — battles, raids, skirmishes still to go and Texas was still in action. Who knew who was in charge there and if those soldiers were actually ready to put down their arms? Significantly, some weren’t. The last official battle of the war in Texas was the Battle of Palmitto Ranch near Brownsville. There a force of 350 under Col. Rip Ford defeated 800 Union troops led by Col.Theodore H. Barrett. Odd, at this late stage Texas was still in an active state of war and the confederates exhibited strongly.
That notwithstanding, the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy at Galveston occurred June 2nd, 1865. Seventeen days later, General Gordon Granger, commander of U.S. troops in Texas arrived. We don’t know if it was bright and early one Galveston morning or not. No notice was recorded of the climate. We have no names of ships. But men and stead, almost 2,000 strong were present and ready to ride. We have no details generally presented on the transfer and arrival of the Union’s presence. Nonetheless, they came. In the mix were seasoned Black troops.
[Note: Five months after the Proclamation took effect; the War Department of the United States issued General Orders No. 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops (USCT). By the end of the war, over 200,000 African-Americans would serve in the Union army and navy.]
Granger was given command of the Department of Texas on June 10, 1865, by Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Southwest. Galveston as a Confederate post had been abandoned some months prior to Union occupation due to the gross lack of supplies and food evidencing an increased effectiveness of the Union blockage. Nonetheless, this declaration of the presidential proclamation came to Texas exactly 2 years, 6 months and 17 days behind the rest of the country. Armed resistance was expected.
Upon his arrival in Galveston on June 19, Granger officially declared that the institution of slavery was dead, setting off joyful displays by Texas freedmen. Granger’s proclamation formed the basis for the annual “Juneteenth” festivities, which celebrate the end of slavery in Texas. He also declared that laws passed by the Confederate government were void, that Confederate soldiers were paroled, that all persons having public property, including cotton, should turn it in to the United States Army, and that all privately owned cotton was to be turned in to the army for compensation. He counseled blacks against congregating around towns and military posts, remaining unemployed, or expecting welfare; rather he advised them to remain on the plantations and to sign labor agreements with their former owners while awaiting further assistance from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had not yet been established in the state. For six weeks Granger took this message into the interior of the state.
According to a biographer of Granger, he wrote, “[Granger] wrote a very radical statement for the time, striking in his language.” Faced with defeated but defiant Texans, Granger issued an order that went beyond instructions from division commander Gen. Philip Sheridan. Six days earlier, Sheridan had written to Granger the phrasing “all slaves are free” but “must remain at home.”
Granger’s order added the words “absolute equality” and defined the legal roles of “employer and hired labor.” Former slaves were only “advised” to stay in place.
IMPORTANT ORDERS BY GEN. GRANGER. THE SLAVES ALL FREE.
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF TEXAS, GALVESTON, Texas, June 19, 1865.
GENERAL ORDERS, No. 3. — The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are free.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
By command of Maj.-Gen. GRANGER.
F.W. EMERY, Major, and A.A.G.
COTTON TO BE SHIPPED TO NEW-ORLEANS OR NEW- YORK.
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF TEXAS, GALVESTON, TEXAS, June 19, 1865.
How did the whites react? Those who were not stunned, simply return to life as they had known it. Where they could corral and intimidate Blacks to stay against their will, they did. Generally, they acted badly, disruptively and viciously, not towards the Union troops that were moving through the state to inform the new freedmen of the change, but their rage was vented with impunity against the newly freed persons. Texas ran red in black blood.
Many of the most brutal bushwhacker leaders, such as William C. Quantrill and William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson, won national notoriety. A group of their followers remained under arms and carried out robberies and murders (which they may have considered to be ongoing guerilla resistance) for sixteen years after the war, under the leadership of Jesse James, his brother Frank James, and Cole Younger and his brothers.
More isolated geographically, Texas was not a battleground state, and thus the people held there as slaves were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation unless they escaped. Early in the war, planters and other slaveholders had migrated into Texas from eastern states to escape the fighting, and many brought enslaved people with them, increasing by the thousands the enslaved population in the state at the end of the Civil War. Although most enslaved people lived in rural areas, more than 1000 resided in both Galveston and Houston by 1860, with several hundred in other large towns. By 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. By example, an older Hispanic town, San Antonio, had 168 among a population of 3,436.
How did the Blacks assembled react? Slaves cried and danced for hours. Many shouted to the heavens, “We’s free! We’s free!” Thousands had no idea what freedom meant or how to experience it, but they knew it had to be better than eating hog scraps, wearing tattered clothes, living in slave quarters, and working for zero dollars.
But even as the proclamation gave them everything, it provided them nothing. Thousands of black people left slavery without a strategy for survival. Some adhered to Granger’s advice to remain in Texas to “work for wages” as sharecroppers, ranch hands and domestics.
[This advertisement was published on June 18, 1947, in The Dallas Morning News. ( /Dallas Morning News)]
The first anniversary of June 19 was quietly celebrated in Texas by former slaves who lived in fear of being sent to prison for breaking the Black Codes — almost word-for-word the Slave Codes post-Civil War — or shot on the roads as they traveled to work. Cold steel bars replaced cruel slave masters. Even when black Texans managed to navigate the daily hurdles of not angering whites, they were sometimes hung or beaten for almost no reason at all.
Between 1865 and 1868, more than 500 former slaves were murdered in Texas, almost exclusively at the hands of white people. This brutality was designed to crush dreams and any notion of equality.
To assist former slaves in their uncharted transition and counter the deadly response to emancipation, the federal government established the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1867, the agency helped organize the first Juneteenth celebration at a park in Austin.
inA few years later, two ministers, John Henry “Jack” Yates Tand Elias Dibble, purchased 10 acres in Houston to guarantee Negroes who wanted to celebrate Juneteenth could do so at Emancipation Park on Dowling Street. These men knew what Juneteenth meant that their brothers and sisters deserved a respite to sing, march, play baseball, devour barbecue or sip sweet tea minus the threat of violence.