On Juneteenth (and the Very American Idea of Freedom)

Zaron Burnett III
32 min readJun 17, 2023
Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900 held in “East Woods” on East 24th Street in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Austin History Center.)

Juneteenth is our newest American holiday; declared as a national holiday to mark, honor and celebrate Black history and our liberation from slavery. But I’m here to tell you… it’s not that. It’s not just Black history. If you’re an American, it’s your history. It’s… our history. It’s important that we speak of Juneteenth in terms of how it began — a great moment in American history and a day of freedom.

Juneteenth is a tradition that began down in the great state of Texas. It was first celebrated as a feast day. A time for joyous families to gather and celebrate that they had come through slavery. They’d defied death and oppression, the master’s cruelty, the overseer’s whip, the periods of starvation and sickness, the inescapable heartbreak and sorrow, all the family disruption and lives spent on hard labor, the profits of which were stolen from them — they had made it through all of that, to the other side. Coming through slavery was akin to something you’d read about in the Bible.

Over time the expressions of joy, the spirit of defiance, and even the meaning of Juneteenth has changed. It first changed with the loss of living memory of the days of slavery, when those elders passed. Then it changed again as the movement for Civil Rights and for Black Power took hold of the cultural imagination. A day marking our freedom became a political act. On its way to becoming our most recent national holiday, Juneteenth changed meaning a few times as it stretched far beyond the borders of Texas where it first set its roots.

To take to heart the deepest meanings and to glimpse the true legacy of Juneteenth, it requires that we confront pain and ugliness, that we speak of an America that was once a slave-owning republic dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We tend to start the story of America with Jamestown, but that’s not exactly the best place to begin. Why? Because, one hundred years before the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, there were free Black men exploring the New World.

Daring and brave men, like Handsome Juan Garrido. He was a Spanish-speaking adventurer who sailed with the conquistadors, Ponce De Leon and Hernan Cortes. He was also the first Black man to set foot on North American soil.

And Handsome Juan Garrido was free.

It’s equally important that we recognize that the American Dream begins with Handsome Juan Garrido, not John Smith and Jamestown. Our story begins with the Spanish conquistadors whose ships first crossed the Atlantic. And for at least 120 years before the English or French or Dutch began to even dream of empires in the New World, it was the Spanish making First Contact, as they set about to carve all the silver and gold out of the earth that they could, as fast as they could. Their greed set the imprint for what would become the Americas. Later soft sold as the land of opportunity.

Before America existed in the mind of any of the Founding Fathers, America began in Texas. And in Florida. In South Carolina. In those places where the Spanish conquistadors first came ashore, in that full century before Jamestown. America begins in Spanish.

And so, our story starts on an island, just off the shores of Texas. A place called Galveston.

Which brings us to Esteban the Negro.

Esteban first set a dry foot on land in Florida in 1528. He was part of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. The flotilla had set sail from Cuba, headed for Hernan Cortes’ new capital — the vast new city that would come to be called Mexico City. But this unlucky flotilla of conquistadors missed their target, they ran into a hurricane, they lost their bearing, got spun around and finally ran aground in Florida, near present day Tampa. The year was 1528.

Things continued to not go well for the doomed Spanish expedition lost in Florida as they marched through the everglade swamp, certain they weren’t far from Mexico City. After the expedition realized their now fatal mistake, the starving men were forced to slaughter and eat their horses to survive. Then they had to move on to even more drastic measures. The conquistadors turned their beloved horses first into food and then they rendered their hides into rafts and attempted to sail to Mexico City.

Narváez selected the strongest men for his raft. But the conquistador’s stretch of bad luck wasn’t done with him yet. One night, he and the strongest men drifted out into the Gulf, never to be seen again. That left another conquistador, a man named Cabeza de Vaca, in charge of the expedition of rafts. He and a few fortunate men, like Esteban — they made it back to land. They washed ashore on an island, one we call Galveston.

The survivors’ ordeal was far from over. Most of the men who’d made it that far would meet their end before the seasons changed. By the autumn of that year, of the 600 men from the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, only Esteban the Negro and three other men were still alive.

Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorante.

Unfortunately for Esteban, one of those three men to survive, Andres Dorante, was Esteban’s master. That meant that, although Esteban had survived a hurricane, shipwreck, and the horse hide raft expedition, he was still enslaved.

The four remaining survivors were taken captive by Natives of the area. With Esteban’s master captured and enslaved alongside him, Esteban was now the slave of a slave.

Doubly-enslaved, he was even further away from freedom.

Luckily for those four survivors, their time in captivity eventually ended. And the four lost men were turned loose in the wilds of what would become Texas. They were naked and afraid, unarmed, vulnerable to even the path they walked. Together, the four men wandered their way across the Southwest. They encountered more Indigenous tribes, and they traveled with them, and then they were passed from traveling tribe to traveling tribe. As they crossed the Natives’ footpath highways.

Esteban was of particular interest to the tribes they encountered. And interestingly, the four men were pressed into service as medicine men. Holy men. As such, they began to perform healings. This was the custom of the Natives they met, they would breathe on the sick and infirm. But they also performed a few minor surgeries. And at least one major open chest surgery. An arrowhead was removed from a man’s chest, and shockingly, he survived. The tales of their healings and the strange look of them only increased the legend of the wandering holy men. Esteban and the three others came to be called the Children of the Sun.

As they continued to wander west from what we call Texas, the men were treated as gods on Earth. Most of all, Esteban the Negro.

He learned to speak some of the Native languages. He worked as the group’s translator. He was immensely popular. He was awarded gifts and honorary decorations. Soon, he looked like a true Child of the Sun. The men’s survival could easily be credited to the connections Esteban forged with the bands of Natives they met. And so, his owner, Andres Dorante, eventually freed Esteban.

According to the writings of Cabeza de Vaca, the men had begun to consider Esteban as their equal. Out in the wilderness of what would become America, the men had been freed of the social structures of Spain. They were new men in a new world.

Esteban and the others eventually walked all the way across the deserts and canyons that would become known as New Mexico, Arizona, and they walked all the way to the Pacific.

Where almost immediately they encountered Spanish conquistadors. Men out on a slave raid, collecting Natives, and walking them back to Spanish lands in chains. The four survivors, long thought to be dead, were hailed as conquering heroes. They were taken down to Mexico City, down to the land of Hernan Cortes, where they were feasted and feted.

There, once again, among the bosom of what was called civilization, Esteban was informed that he was still a slave. In fact, Andres Dorante sold him to a treasure-hunting conquistador who demanded that Esteban return to the Southwest and guide him to the Seven Cities of Gold.

You see, it was Esteban the Negro who was gave us the legend of the fabled seven cities of Gold and the Legend of El Dorado. Esteban did as he was ordered. Since he was once again a slave, he had no choice. He was returned to the Southwest. Only this time he didn’t make it back to the land that would become Texas. Instead, he met his violent end searching for El Dorado.

He’d arrived on this continent enslaved, he was forced by god-fearing zealots with gold fever and dreams of empire to do their bidding, he survived their insane dreams of gold and glory, and somehow, in this land that would become America, he was not only freed, but Esteban became a living God in this land his companions called New Eden.

But then, through another twist of fate and circumstance, Esteban was re-enslaved. No longer a god on earth, his humanity was once again stolen from him, by force, and by civilization.

Esteban’s story, at least the contours and rough shape of his lost and found freedom, that would become a familiar story in the land that we now call Texas. A land where freedom comes and freedom goes. A land where freedom now rings, or so the song goes. Of course, that depended on if the Union won the Civil War — Texas had other plans for who be free and who enslaved.

Back in 1862, with the Civil War a year old and in full blood and violent swell, the outcome of the war was far from certain. In fact, most smart folks secretly believed the Confederacy would win its war of secession. The rebels had the aid of the British and the French. And it seemed the Confederates could win their war through a stalemate. Both time and blood were on their side. With every day that passed and every drop of blood shed, a Union victory became less likely.

This self-evident truth was a driving factor for why President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. After the great spring bleeding of 1862, Lincoln appointed a new general to run the war — it was not yet Grant. And the Confederacy was gaining ground and strength with each victory. The Second Bull Run, Harper’s Ferry, then came Antietam — the bloodiest battle of the whole war. Men died for two days by the thousands. Neither side could declare victory. Next came Fredericksburg — that was another Confederate victory.

The cause of freedom was clearly losing in the winter of 1862.

President Lincoln decided to strike a blow to win the war, and to further the struggle for freedom at the same time. He would settle the question of slavery all by himself. On the first day of the new year, 1863, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. He decreed that all those held in bondage in the Confederate states were now free. His words effectively ended slavery in the South.

But it wasn’t a law, it was a war order. It gave Union troops the legal right to free enslaved persons they encountered and to thus weakened the economic engine of the South, since the Confederacy was empowered by human bondage. Lincoln also knew that in order to deliver the newly freed unto the promised land of equality and citizenship, the Union Army would have to win the war. That became possible when in May of 1864, Lincoln appointed an alcoholic career soldier to run his war, Ulysses S. Grant. And that fall General Sherman started his campaign, his March to the Sea, during which he would burn Atlanta to the ground. Sherman’s men devastated Georgia — cutting a path of destruction 300 miles long and 60 miles wide.

By April 1865, the Civil War was finally over. Of course, Lincoln would not live to see the peace he won. It would be left to other men to guide the fateful ship back to shore. Lincoln’s death also left those he’d newly-freed to make their own way in a world that still saw them as slaves.

In the 1930s and 1940s, interviewers from FDR’s Works Projects Administration program, traveled the country with audio recording devices, documenting the living memory of America. They spent years recording field songs, oral histories, church hymns, and the tales and recollections of extremely aged people. For some of those folks their living memory stretched back to the Civil War.

For instance, Alice Gaston who was born in slavery. She remembered it well. Sitting in the sweltering heat of a place called Gee’s Bend, Alabama, Alice Gaston recounted for the WPA interviewers her life in “old slavery times.”

Alice Gaston: We was talking about in the old war time, the old slavery time. I can remember when, uh, I can remember when the Yankees come through and, uh, they carried my father away and carried away, my two sisters and one brother. And, uh, they left me.

And I can remember when my missus used to run in the garden, from the Yankees and tell us if they come, don’t tell them where they at.

And my father, when my father left, he went away with the Yankees, and carried two, carried two, two girls and one son, the oldest one. Carried them with him. And he went with the Yankees. And I can remember that.

It almost sounds like the opening scene of a movie — a tragedy of slavery — but this was Alice Gaston’s life.

Now let’s consider how life was for an enslaved person living on a Texas plantation. Out in Texas, plantation life was often the most brutal, the oppression even more severe. Compound that with the fact that Texas was the frontier — that meant extra violence and the fact that you were on your own since Texas was the edge of the world, for most folks.

Texas was also the last place to hear about the end of the Civil War.

Which also meant it was the last place where enslaved people learned that they were now legally free. Texas was the last bastion of slavery in the U.S. That was very fitting as Texas had always fought hardest for some of its citizens to have the right to own people and profit off their labors and fully control their lives. Texas did not lead the Confederacy, but it was the will and beating heart of the Confederacy.

Texas had been its own nation, before it entered America — as most Texans are only too happy to tell you. That’s why it’s nicknamed the Lone Star state. It was first the Lone Star Republic.

Texas also has the rare honor of having seceded from two different countries.

In 1836, Texas emerged victorious and independent after its war with Mexico. That war was also fought over slavery.

As I said earlier, it’s impossible to accurately tell a story of America without beginning with the Spanish conquistadors. This is even more true for the story of Texas, which started out as a Mexican territory, then known as New Spain. After our independence, Spain was an ardent rival of the young nation of America.

In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, the US massively expanded its territory with the Louisiana Purchase. The French sold off its territorial holdings on the continent. With one pen stroke, our new nation began its westward expansion. In response, the Spanish, who still controlled Florida, most of the gulf states, Texas, and most of the southwest, that would become Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, stretching onto Colorado, Utah.

In the Spanish lands that would become the states of Florida and Texas, the crown offered freedom to all those held in slavery, if they could make it over the border. This wasn’t some benevolent act by the crown of Spain. Instead the offer of freedom to the enslaved was a cunning political move. It was designed to undercut the economic power and the stability of the slave-holding societies of the South. If the enslaved could cross the swamps and forests and rivers, they knew they would be welcomed by Spain. Given back their humanity. And many took that bargain.

For generations of Black people, Texas became synonymous with freedom.

Then came a man named Napoleon Bonaparte.

He’d won his war back on the continent, defeating Spain. That was a monumental shift in power back in the Old World. It also meant vast changes in the New. Napoleon placed his brother on the Spanish throne. That led to a fight between the American-born Spaniards of New Spain, AKA Mexico, and the peninsula-born Spaniards of Old Spain of Europe.

Eventually, Mexico claimed its independence.

After years of bloody warfare, in 1821, Spain pulled the plug on New Spain. But, rather than sell its land, the same way the French had, the Spanish just kinda loaded up on their ships and sailed away. The message to Mexico was simple and brief: You’re on your own, good luck!

The sudden removal of Spain led to instant chaos, disorder, political infighting, which fast devolved into a civil war. Finally, this period of instability and bloodshed ended with the foundation of the Mexican Empire. At that time, the land known as Texas was still part of the Mexican Empire. However, there was a growing number of Anglo settlers who had moved into the territory. And they’d brought their slaves with them.

The new Mexican empire granted these Anglo settlers special permission to work the land. They invited more to come. Those who migrated were also allowed to bring in slaves from their plantations in the American South. The more enslaved people that a new settler brought into the territory of Texas, the more land that settler was allowed to purchase. The deal was: a settler could purchase 50 acres per enslaved person they brought with them into the territory of Texas.

But then, in 1829, Mexico elected a new president. A Black president, Vicente Guerrero. And so, after he came to power, Guerrero’s administration passed new legislation. Most notably, Guerrero outlawed slavery. This also meant slavery was abolished in the territory of Texas.

The Mexican government gave the territory a year to make changes to its slave-owning society. The new law against slavery didn’t work for the slave-owners in Texas. They rebelled. And so, in 1835, the territory of Texas seceded from Mexico.

The Anglo settlers in Texas calculated that the slave-owning societies of the American South would finally allow Texas to join the Union. However, America, under President Martin van Buren, had no stomach for an open war with Mexico. America was still young, unsure of her footing in a fast-changing world. So, in 1836, instead of becoming a state, Texas became a border nation. Known as The Republic of Texas.

Texas proudly declared itself to be the first slave republic in history. Texas made this explicit in the new nation’s constitution. There are numerous references to slavery. For instance, the Texas Constitution forbid anyone from freeing an enslaved person — only an act of Congress could free an enslaved person. But also, the Constitution stipulated that the Congress of Texas shall not have the power to free enslaved people. A catch-22 for perpetual slavery.

Also any freemen, any Black person, born of Mexican heritage, living in Texas had to apply to the Congress of Texas to be allowed to continue to live in Texas. It was highly unlikely that any Black or Native person would want to do that since any descendants of Africans or Natives had zero rights under the new Texas Constitution.

Despite all the reverence for the Lone Star Republic, it didn’t even last a decade. Because in 1845, President-elect James K. Polk and outgoing President Tyler combined efforts to pass a resolution that admitted Texas into the Union in 1845. The former Lone Star Republic was only too happy to swell the number of slave states in America. But this happy union did not last long.

Sixteen years later, Texas seceded from a country, for the second time. Again, Texas seceded over the right to own human beings.

In 1861, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, gave a speech defining their new nation and distinguishing it from the United States and the dreams of freedom of the Founding Fathers. The speech is known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” for Stephens’ use of the phrase to explain the Confederacy’s whole reason for being. Some like to say the Confederates just wanted to fight for States’ Rights. But that ends the thought too abruptly. The States’ Rights to do what?

The answer is: The state’s right to decide who was human and who was subhuman. Who was livestock and who was free. The right to decide who could be enslaved, their children enslaved, their humanity stolen, their labor stolen, their pride and dignity denied, their life a whim in the palm of a hateful human hand.

Vice President Stephens made it powerfully clear that this was indeed the Confederacy’s chief goal. Its sole reason for being. In his Cornerstone Speech, Stephens attacked Thomas Jefferson and what he deemed his naive view of humanity and our history as enslavers. Stephens argued that…

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

The Confederacy was happily, proudly and defiantly, a slave republic.

But Stevens’ words are merely theory and argument and debate. What of life for the enslaved? That was not a theoretical question of liberty, of freedom, of ideals and high-minded declarations on paper. Slavery was lived brutality.

To the enslaved person, slavery is the whip. Slavery is the loss of humanity. Slavery is the guarantee that you can not protect your child. Your partner. Anyone you love, Nor yourself. You are property. No different than livestock, with all the same rights as livestock. Sexual abuses, physical abuses, mental and emotional abuses are not only legal, they are often encouraged.

In 1860, one year before the outbreak of the Civil War, there were 182,566 enslaved people in Texas. That represents roughly, 30 percent of the population at the time. The enslaved were primarily clustered in a few areas in East Texas, and along the Gulf Coast. They toiled in the cotton fields, as well as sugar cane, and corn fields.

In the West, the enslaved were forced to labor in the unrelenting West Texas sun. Many tended animals — sheep, hogs, cattle. It was here, just as in South Carolina, where enslaved men would come to be called cowboys. The white laborers who performed the same jobs on a ranch were called hands, ranch hand, top hands. While the Black men were called boys, and thus, they were called cow boys. Soon enough that was a new word in the English language. And over time it has taken on new connotations. But the first cow boys were Black.

And many of them lived in Texas when freedom came and they reclaimed their humanity.

The city of Galveston was noted as a particular gem of its slave society. There in Galveston, you could find slaves laboring as staff in the fancy hotels and restaurants, chefs in the kitchens, or they worked on the harbor as stevedores, sailors, carpenters, sail-makers, blacksmiths, butchers, barbers, candlestick-makers. The truly unfortunate ones labored in the plantation fields under the whip on an overseer. That’s where life was at its worst.

The enslaved would be given clothing twice a year. And they had to make those last. They often had no shoes or winter coats. The foods they were given were scraps of meat — the disfavored cuts of hog — like the feet and tails. They supplemented that with what they could grow near their quarters — sweet potatoes, berries, hominy. Without notice, their children could be sold from them. Their husbands or wives sold. Rented out. Murdered. And all without consequence. Those who were rented out as labor, it was illegal for them to be rented out to free Black people. It was illegal for free Black people to benefit from the stolen labor of other Black people.

Of course, to keep people in a state of servitude required more than whips and casual cruelty, it also required ignorance. 95% of the enslaved in Texas were illiterate — this was on purpose. All that was required of them could be taught without any need for reading. The only thing that reading offered was a threat to the status of a slave society. In most slave states, books were illegal for the enslaved.

In 1949, interviewers from the WPA field recordings program spoke with a man named Fountain Hughes and he recalled for them his life in bondage:

“My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belong to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was a hundred and fifteen years old when he died. And now I am one hundred and, and one year old.”

Fountain Hughes came from a family that was owned by the same man who penned the words: “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words from the mind of Thomas Jefferson, enshrined in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, are the spirit of this nation. It also serves as the nation’s guarantee of freedom. The same guarantee which was denied to humans Jefferson owned. Apparently, the right of liberty wasn’t so inalienable, after all.

Fountain Hughes recalled how for someone, such as his grandfather, owned by one of the Founding Fathers:

“Colored people didn’t have no beds, when they was slaves. We always slept on the floor, pallet here, and a pallet there. Just like, uh, lot of, uh, wild people, we didn’t, we didn’t know nothing. Didn’t allow you to look at no book. And then there was some free born colored people, why they had a little education, but there was very few of them, where we was. And they all had uh, what you call, I might call it now, uh, jail centers, was just the same as we was in jail. Now I couldn’t go from here across the street, or I couldn’t go through nobody’s house without I have a note, or something from my master. I couldn’t just walk away like the people does now, you know. It was what they call, we were slaves. We belonged to people. They’d sell us like they sell horses and cows and hogs and all like that. Have an auction bench, and they’d put you on, up on the bench and bid on you just same as you bidding on cattle you know.”

Don’t rush past his words. Pause a moment. Imagine your son, your daughter, your mother, your sister, your brother, standing on a small box. They are most likely stripped to the waist, naked and afraid. Strangers paw at them. Some even lick their skin. The prospective buyers do this to see how salty their sweat is. That’s the sign of someone who can tolerate the punishing conditions of southern humidity and heat and the 12 to 14 hour days, six days a week.

Then the hammer falls — your son, your daughter, your mother is sold the highest bidder. And you most likely will never see them again.

This is the reality Fountain Hughes describes.

Since Jefferson first penned the Declaration of Independence, those same stated values long remained an illusion, an ideal, flitting above the reality of a nation of slave states and free.

This illusion of freedom in the land of the slave led to the undeniable reality of the Civil War.

Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, white lives and Black lives, so that righteous war could be won by the United States. The freedom Lincoln promised was now at hand. But as I said earlier, it raised a vital question, one which we are still wrestling to answer:

“What does equality really mean?”

For the people who were there at the time, there for what we call the Emancipation period, that same period of time they called the “big breakup.” That term seems far more fitting. It speaks to the ugly emotional component. The big break-up was about more than freedom and slavery, it was also the shattering of families and homes and communities of plantations. Thus, some resisted this change.

No former slave state resisted giving up slavery quite like Texas did.

Few of the battles of the Civil War took place in Texas. But, a point of fact, the very last battle of the Civil War took place in Texas. And the Confederacy won that battle. Thus, the belligerents of Texas were never fully beaten. And thus, when the Union Army arrived to settle the peace, the Texans resisted. Violently, if necessary.

To put down the Texan secessionists, General Ulysses S. Grant sent a hand-picked general. With him he sent a small army to Texas to quell the resistance, once and for all. But Grant did not send the best and brightest. Instead, he sent his old classmate from their days at West Point, General Gordon Granger. He despised Granger and felt he was inept. Grant had kept Granger out of all the major battles to deny him any battlefield glory.

And now, he gave Granger the grunt work task of managing all of Texas. With just 2,000 soldiers.

Two and half months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, Gen. Granger and his 2,000 Union soldiers arrived in the port city of Galveston.

Granger knew it was his job to make Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation the law. And to legally free the 200,000 enslaved Black Americans. The Union army arrived on June 19, 1865.

General Granger announced to the people of Galveston, and thus to all of Texas, that there was a new law in town. Martial law. He read out his military orders. Then he got to Order Number 3:

HEADQUARTER DISTRICT OF TEXAS

Galveston, Texas June 19, 1865

The people of 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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer. The Freedmen are advised to remain 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 order of Major General Granger”

With those words, General Granger stepped into the pages of history. He’d freed the last of those held in bondage. But he was no great hero. He was a military bureaucrat, a man putting down insurrectionists and establishing a return to the rule of law, American law.

Beyond that, he had no real concerns for those whom he freed.

As Fountain Hughes recalled of what he and his family faced in freedom, “We had no home, you know. We was just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in a pasture? Well after freedom, you know, colored people didn’t have nothing.”

How could they? They’d been denied any control of their lives, their parents and siblings sold and scattered to the winds, they were often illiterate and had no sense of money since they were denied any opportunity to save or spend it. And now, like beasts of burden, as Fountain Hughes said, the newly freed were turned loose.

In Texas, this led to all sorts of violence and crisis.

Missus Laura Smiley was enslaved in Texas at the time of General Granger and his Order 3. She recalled well how the people on the plantations of Texas reacted to the announcement of their freedom and what that meant for them in real world terms.

Mrs. Laura Smiley told the interviewers from the WPA:

Mrs. Laura Smalley: We didn’t know where to go. Mama and them didn’t know where to go, you see after freedom broke. Just turned, just like you turn something out, you know. Didn’t know where to go. That’s just where they stayed.

It’s striking that her family chose to stay in Texas. Even though that’s where they’d labored under the whip. Why? Would they stay and live beside their former slave masters?

Because they didn’t know where else to go.

As for the former slave masters, they also had to deal with this sudden emancipation of their workforce. You would imagine the former enslavers were ensnare and trick, and force their former workforce to stay and labor, just as they had before Emancipation. And they did exactly that. For instance, we know of the story of Logan Stroud, he was one of the largest slave-holders in all of Texas.

That same day that Gen. Granger read aloud Order 3, freeing all enslaved people, Logan Stroud addressed his 150-plus enslaved laborers. He told them he had a life-changing announcement. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same order than Gen. Granger read alod, and he proceeded to read it to his now-free workers. But he couldn’t finish reading it. The announcement of freedom caused the slave master to openly weep. His daughter took the paper from him and finished reading it aloud.

This, too, was a moment of freedom. A very real moment when an American had to tell other Americans that he no longer owned them — and there was nothing he could do about it.

In the days that followed the reading or Order 3, Gen. Granger had to deal with the consequences of his actions. He spoke with the mayor of Galveston and worked to reassure the people that his Order 3 should mean little change for the people of Galveston, the white people.

The Galveston Daily News from June 20, 1865 records Gen. Granger’s meeting with the mayor:

“He requested the mayor to say to the citizens that they should meet with the fullest protection in both person and property, that the houses of the city should not be occupied by the troops, but that they would be encamped outside of the city, that negroes fleeing from the county to the city would not be allowed to live in idleness or become a burden to the people, that they would be arrested as they arrived, and forced to work on fortifications or be put to other labor.”

Gen. Granger promised the mayor that he would send negroes to the Quartermaster to be used for military purposes. And as the Galveston paper noted:

“This was accordingly done, but the Quartermaster having no immediate work for them, sent them to jail for safe-keeping till he should want them. We mention this as an indication of the policy of our Government is now pursuing in relation to runaway slaves.”

The Army was essentially re-enslaving the newly freed and forcing them to labor for the benefit of others rather than themselves or their families. There was a persistent fear on the part of Texans, and really, Southerners across the former Confederacy, that the newly-freed would turn to either violence or indolence. That they would become either killers or bums.

As one Louisville, Kentucky paper lamented:

“The bare bleak reality falls upon the negro that he is an alien race in a land of stronger and more progressive people. There is nothing before him but a swift decay and destruction. The play is played out, the laughter is over, and the curtain rises to darken scenes for him and his children.”

You can hear how Jim Crow laws would immediately begin to take effect to limit what the newly-free could do with their lives and their communities.

On June 21, two days after Gen. Granger read his Order 3, the Galveston newspaper published an editorial with the headline: What is the status of the Negro?:

“If the policy of emancipation is to be carried out, the cause of humanity and the true interests of all parties require that the poor negro should no longer be deceived upon the subject. He should be told plainly, as many of the Federal commanders are now telling him in their orders, that if he chooses to leave home and go among strangers, he will still have to work, and perhaps harder than ever before, and that whether he is able to work or not, he must still take care of himself, as he will have no one else to look to. He should be told, as these orders now tell him, that he will not be allowed to go to towns to seek a precarious subsistence, and ramble from place to place without a home, but that, if he leaves his old home and service of his master, he must go to work on some other plantation, and for another white man, as he must have a steady home and steady work somewhere.

He should be told plainly that his being free is not the privilege of being idle, or doing as he pleases but simply the privilege of working (for another man and taking care of himself and family as best he can). If the negroes are told these truths, and further informed that their freedom can never make them the equals of the white race, but that God himself has made a marked distinction between the white and black races, which no human laws, nor all the abolitionists in the world can ever obliterate, but which must continue as long as they exist.”

Later on, that same columnist gets to the heart of the matter, the ugly emotional face of white fear in the days of freedom:

“No instance can be found in the history of the world where two races so distinct in color, physiological characteristics and mental capacity, ever lived together as equals, and the attempt to make the experiment in this case, must inevitably lead to the utter extermination of one race or the other, and it requires no prophet to tell which race it will be.”

The slave masters were convinced that the formerly enslaved would rise up and murder them en masse. Or that they would have to exterminate their former slaves if they refused to continue to be slaves.

Against this backdrop, the formerly enslaved gathered together, asked themselves what they would do now and where they would go. But before they could answer those questions, they sat down and they enjoyed a feast — meant to celebrate that they were indeed free.

As Mrs. Laura Smiley recalled:

“Went to the house to see old master. And I thought old master was dead, but he wasn’t. He had been off to the war, and ah, come back. But then I didn’t know, you know, until the war. I just know he was gone a long time. All the niggas gathered around to see the old master again. You know, and old master didn’t tell you know, they was free. […] They worked there, I think now they say, they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the nineteenth of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.

I remember, you know, the time they give them a big dinner, you know on the nineteenth. On, on the nineteenth, you know. That’s called, they still have it, give them a big dinner — on nineteenth. We didn’t know. They just thought, you know, were just feeding us, you know. Just had a long table. And just had ah, just a little of everything you want to eat, you know. And drink, you know. Now, and they say that was on the nineteenth — and everything you want to eat and drink.”

This didn’t just occur at Laura Smiley’s plantation, this scene was repeated all across Texas. The formerly enslaved gathered together and marked Juneteenth as the return to freedom. That first feast began an annual tradition. Within a few years, Black Texans were banding together to purchase land so that they could have a place to celebrate Juneteenth.

In 1872, a small group of formerly enslaved people pooled their money and purchased 10 acres of land in Houston. They dubbed their land Emancipation Park. It’s located in Houston’s Third Ward, a predominantly and historically Black part of town. Each year, Emancipation Park became the scene of joyous celebrations. And a tradition was born.

In 1993, Virgil Griffin shared with the Los Angeles Times his recollections of growing up in Texas and celebrating Juneteenth with the community. As a self-described Black cowboy, and proud Texan, Griffin found great meaning and a sense of home in bonds of connection and all of the many pleasures of Juneteenth. He was raised in Caldwell, Texas. A small town — about 2500 people — but despite their size they would do it up for Juneteenth.

“The festivities always included the traditional Texas menu of “red soda water” (strawberry soda), “polly pop” (Kool-Aid), hickory-smoked barbecued chicken and beef, as well as a whole hog, plus watermelon and the local beer like Lone Star and Pearl. Juneteenth also was a time for our family to reunite.”

As Griffin recalled, it was also a highly anticipated opportunity to show out.

“We’d have a parade that included the local black business people, educators and students riding in floats and cars. They would be trailed by cowboys who would be decked out in the finest of tailored Western wear outfits — with a Stetson hat and specially cut jeans that fit snugly into their lizard- or ostrich-skin boots. During the parade, riders would show off prized breeds like the Tennessee walking horse, cow ponies and the gaited horse. The day’s activities continued with softball matches, card games of bid whist. In the afternoon, the Miss Juneteenth and Junior Miss Juneteenth contest would take place. Later we’d all feast on the barbecue.”

The food was essential to the feast, obviously. But for this meal, it was ritualized, and much like electing a new pope it involved the blessings of smoke.

“The night before, the men would gather under a cottonwood tree, with its big, broad leaves, where they would season and marinate the meat and then cook it slowly all night. It would definitely be ready the next day by noon.”

After the feast, there would be a dance — with all the generations in attendance. It was a full-bodied celebration of their freedom.

As Griffin thought about his life as a Black cowboy and what Juneteenth meant to him, how it gave him something lasting, he said in self-loving terms,

“I fancy myself a black cowboy and as I look at our participation in the West, Juneteenth continues to take on increasing significance. As I look back through the history of the black cowboy days during slavery, I see we were used as horse handlers; during the cowboy period one out of every four cowboys was black. With each year, Juneteenth has given me a chance to look at the truth and understand the contribution we’ve made and continue to make to this country.”

This is also what the holiday does for me. And I recommend it do the same for you. Even if you are not Black, it’s still your holiday. That is, if you honor and cherish freedom, if you dignify the liberty of all who you meet, if you believe that being American means being free to be who you want to be, then Juneteenth is your holiday, too.

Maybe it’s not your holiday for the exact same reasons that we Black people may celebrate it, but freedom needs all the champions it can get. Freedom, like so many things which we find valuable, is delicate. Freedom can be lost, it can be seized and taken, it can be denied, but it can never be fully stolen.

For, ultimately, it is the heart of what we are. Freedom is like breath. It’s what animates our lives.

The writer Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the collection of essays, On Juneteenth, she cautions us all against being naive about how we celebrate holidays. Gordon-Reed warns us that:

“There is some danger that holidays allow us to become too self-congratulatory. So many, many awful things happened after Granger made his speech, so much violence and oppression. But I remember a conversation I had with my great-grandmother, whose own mother had been enslaved as a child. I offered, in an old-soul kind of way, that it seemed to me that people were acting as if Juneteenth were no longer a big deal. Her eyes met mine. “It was a big deal to us,” she said.”

I agree with the grandmother. To those who understand what was taken, what was denied, what was stolen, what was sold-off, what was murdered, massacred, what was lost and what was found, the idea of Juneteenth is not just a feast, or a holiday, a dance, or a parade — Juneteenth is a defiant celebration of what makes our lives worth living. It’s a holiday that fits the self-same defiant nature of our still-young nation, as well as the defiant nature of freedom, itself.

In the years just after the Civil War, back when the people of Houston were still saving money to purchase and build Emancipation Park, a boy child was born in Texas. He was born Black and free. He was the dream realized. His name was Bill Pickett.

Bill Pickett would go on to live an epically, legendary American life. His name is now enshrined in the Rodeo Hall of Fame. Bill Pickett was a Black cowboy. And he was a proud Texan. He believed in America. He believed we weren’t perfect. But equally, that we were always getting better, together. And his belief was hard-won. It was real. It was Texan.

Measuring our progress based on how far we’ve come from slavery is not the point of Juneteenth. Slavery is not the full story of our recent past as Black people in America. Juneteenth serves us as an annual reminder that slavery is not the start of our history, or our story in America. Even if slavery is what made us Black people in America.

The point of Juneteenth is that we were always free. We were momentarily enslaved. Juneteenth marks our return to freedom.

It also marks America’s commitment to its rare promise of equality, made real. This nation was founded on the rather high-minded notion that free people can live together in peace and prosperity by recognizing the inherent dignity of all human beings. By living according to the belief that we are always best, strongest, most successful when we are all free.

Yes, of course, the full rights of citizenship wouldn’t come until much later with the Voting Rights Act of 1964. That’s when we, as Black people, became full U.S. citizens. But it is Juneteenth that denotes America’s independence from our days as an uneasy home to slave states. It marks the moment when we began to live according to the words of the Founding Fathers, a promise that is worth fighting for — a promise that we are still fighting to make true for all Americans. The struggle goes on.

Juneteenth is an annual reminder of the value of freedom, not just our independence, but true freedom. And the price of freedom and the efforts to deny freedom is necessary for a society dedicated to being the land of the free and no longer the home of the slave.

W.E.B. DuBois remarked “All that was beauty, all that was love, all that was truth, stood on the top of these mad mornings and sang with the stars. A great human sob shrieked in the mind and tossed its tears upon the sea — Free, Free, Free!”]

Here’s to our nation’s day to celebrate Freedom, our second Independence Day, may Juneteenth remind us all of the price and value of freedom. ….Happy Juneteenth!

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Zaron Burnett III

writer, story editor, essays & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts