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Borderlands: Juneteenth Celebrates Freedom for Texas Slaves 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Juneteenth Celebrates Freedom for Texas Slaves

Article first published in Vol. 21, 2002.

By Maggie Borjas, Rosa Cardenas and Roland Johnson III

Homesick, lonely and frequently beaten. Brought to a strange country thousands of miles away from home. Forced to work without rights or freedoms. African slaves in the U.S. suffered horribly before achieving their eventual freedom.

In Texas, the announcement of their liberty came late, over two years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, signed in September 1862 and effective January 1, 1863. This document stated that all slaves in states "in rebellion against the United States," meaning those that had seceded, "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." These states included Texas.

Emancipation Proclamation

On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that the Civil War had ended and slaves were free. African-Americans all over Texas and in other parts of the U.S. now celebrate "Juneteenth," commemorating Granger's announcement.

But what is the significance of this Texas state holiday that is dear to so many of African ancestry but unknown to others? To appreciate what this day represents we must go back to the times of slavery and get a glimpse at why this day was and still is so important.

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In 1619, the first shipload of Africans was brought to the Virginia colony on a Dutch ship as indentured servants. By 1620, about 2,000 black slaves lived in the United States. The English illegally brought slaves over from the West Indies or directly from Africa. In 1776, three million slaves were imported. Altogether, more than 15 million blacks were transported to the Western Hemisphere.

Because American planters preferred male slaves, men were taken from their families in Africa. Traders and their crews forced the men onto ships, often overcrowding the vessel to increase profit. Slaves were usually shackled in pairs, and they had little room to move around, being unable to lie down on the long journey. Even breathing became a problem and suffocation, a real possibility. They were fed a vegetable diet of beans, rice, yams and corn. In good weather, they might be allowed to get some fresh air because healthy slaves determined high prices.

Historian James Rogers writes that some slaves who came on deck jumped into the sea, still shackled together, and some even starved themselves because they preferred death to a life of misery. The journey to the U.S. took about eight weeks. The Africans arrived in the New World weary, undernourished and sometimes disease-infested. Many had suffered disabling injuries and some were near death. As the demand for workers increased in the U.S., the number of African males decreased, and traders began to bring women and children along as well. Once slaves left these ships, their humiliation continued.

At the end of the voyage, they were taken off the ship and onto the auction block. Potential buyers inspected slaves as if they were horses. They were asked to walk around, show their teeth, and some were stripped and examined more closely. The healthiest looking slaves were the first ones to be bought. Any scars on their backs were evidence of rebelliousness, and thus detrimental to the slave business. In the early 1800s, slaves sold for an average $350 in Virginia and $500 in Louisiana. By 1860, prices in these states had jumped to $1,000 and $1,500, respectively. Once they were purchased, slaves were considered private property and often abused.

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Most slaves were not allowed to live in their owner's homes, instead residing in nearby cabins with 16 to 20 other slaves. They worked sunrise to sunrise at different tasks according to their age. Children from five to 10 had some of the lighter work of gardening and feeding the animals. Men and some of the women worked in fields planting, tending and picking crops; driving wagons; ditching; building fences; clearing land; digging wells; tending livestock; and making or repairing equipment - all the hard work of a plantation.

Women often worked as hard as their men. One said, "I had to do everything dey was to do on the outside. Work in the field, chop wood, hoe corn … I have done everything on a farm what a man done … I splits rails like a man, I drive the [cotton] gin, what was run by two mules."

Older slaves who could no longer work in the fields took care of the children. A very few were selected to work as servants, cooks, butlers and nurses. Slave codes existed in all states that permitted the holding of slaves and affirmed their "absolute obedience" to their masters.

Slaves were prohibited from gathering in groups of four or more without a white person observing, to make sure they were not planning rebellion. The codes prohibited owners from teaching a slave to read or write, for control of their minds rested on denying them knowledge. In his book, Breaking the Chains, William Katz quotes slave William Johnson as saying: "We knowed jess what they told us and no more."

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Another slave, Edward Taylor, recalled: "I thought white folks made the stars, sun, and everything on earth. I knowed nothing but to be driven and beat all the time." Slaves were also not allowed to buy liquor, gamble, carry weapons or selling anything without their masters' authorization. They could not move freely in the street or countryside without a pass from their owners.

In order to increase the production of the plantations, slave owners adopted various forms of discipline and punishment to obtain more control and good behavior from their slaves. Whites throughout the South believed that slaves could not be governed except with the whip or paddle. Twenty lashes with the whip was a common punishment for ordinary infractions. Pregnant women even were not spared the lash. Historian Alwin Barr cites one instance in which a slave received 300 lashes for three days for stealing apples. Owners used dogs to hunt runaways and sometimes let the dogs attack and kill the slaves.

A typical weekly food share for a slave was a peck of cornmeal and three to four pounds of salt pork. Clothing was basic and required to last a long time and included a "heavy blanket every third year." According to some estimates, slaves cost only $15 to $60 a year to keep. Some slaves wanting more freedom and rights revolted against their owners. They killed hogs or chickens at night while others destroyed their owner's property despite the assurance of hanging if caught.

In 1840, the new state of Texas had over 58,000 slaves. By 1860, that figure had multiplied to 182,556, almost half of the total white population of 420,891. Over 21,800 Texans owned slaves. Houston and Galveston were the most important slave trade centers in Texas.

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It was said that Texas slave owners treated their slaves better than those in other states. Texans allowed their slaves to sing, dance, rest, fish and hunt in order to promote hard work and greater acceptance by slaves of their lot. They were allowed to raise vegetables, tobacco, chickens, hogs, cotton, and corn and then sell their products. Some slave owners in Houston read the Bible to their slaves and by 1860, churches such as Methodist, Catholic, Baptist and Episcopal accepted black people as members of their congregations. Historian Alwin Barr says the whole reason that slaves were treated better in Texas was to reduce their desire to escape into nearby Mexico.

From 1851 to 1855, a large number of slaves did run away. In groups of two to five people, they traveled long distances to go to the North, to Indian territories or into Mexico. Mexico became the most attractive goal for slave runaways because Mexico was against slavery.

Rosalie Schwartz writes that runaway slaves found acceptance in Mexico if they were willing to work hard. Once they learned Spanish, they found life relatively comfortable. They could keep their wages and perhaps even set aside a bit because living costs were low. Some even became rich and honorable men, for Mexico protected the rights of the escapees, rejecting international treaties the United States proposed for extradition of runaway slaves.

During the Civil War, rebellious southern states were warned by Abraham Lincoln to cease their defiance and return to the Union by January 1, 1863, or he would declare their slaves forever free. They ignored this request and it took a war to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally outlawed slavery in the United States.

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Why Texas slaves didn't know that they were free until two years later has never been determined with certainty. Some believe that the messenger from Washington was murdered on his way to Texas. Others say it had something to do with federal troops allowing slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest. "Juneteenth," as it was soon called, has come to symbolize for African-Americans what the Fourth of July symbolizes for most Americans - freedom. In 1994, El Pasoan Reverend Johnnie Washington said, "None of my ancestors were freed in 1776. They were freed on June 19, 1865."

Many slaves in Texas headed for Houston, hoping to make a better life. One witness explains that slaves "traveled mostly on foot, bearing heavy burdens of clothing and blankets on their heads - a long and weary journey. They arrived tired, footsore and hungry."

After the Civil War, former slaves created churches, selected community leaders, raised their families, and served in the military. Most of the freed Texas slaves were farm hands. They started going to school and filled classrooms both day and night. It would be a long time, however, before they would be afforded equal opportunity.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery. Two years after General Granger's declaration, the first celebrations of Juneteenth began in Austin under the Freedman's Bureau. It has always been a time for gathering remaining family, praying and reassuring each other. On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday, largely through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American Texas state legislator at the time.

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Guest speakers were and are still an important part of Juneteenth celebrations, focusing on education and personal improvement. The elderly were also called upon to recount events in the past. The "Mule Legend" is often shared at Juneteenth celebrations. This story tells about a black man who rode a mule from Washington, D. C., to Texas with a letter from Lincoln notifying the slaves that they were free, a humorous attempt at explaining the two-year delay.

Food, especially that which slaves had little access to such as lamb, pork and beef, has always highlighted Juneteenth parties. Thus, the barbecue pit is the center of attention at many such observations.

In El Paso, numerous activities help celebrate Juneteenth. Hundreds of people gather at UTEP on Juneteenth to listen to speeches, music, and to eat barbecue. This is such an important event that bad weather does not stop the festivities. One El Paso sponsor of Juneteenth, said, "What is a little bit of rain? Our ancestors took on a lot more than a little bit of rain."

UTEP historian Charles Martin says, "This is a grass-roots holiday ... a people's holiday. In the religious context, it was a time for long sermons. Socially, it was a time for food and picnics, horse races, and baseball games."

Juneteenth is observed not only in Texas but in states as close as Louisiana and as far away as California, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 2000, the El Paso Juneteenth celebration honored African-American senior citizens.

Juneteenth marks a special day on the calendars of many African Americans. Slavery is long gone, but the scars it left are deep. In a 1994 newspaper article, Juanita McCray wisely said of Juneteenth, "It's like the Holocaust. We keep repeating the story so it will never happen again."

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