Contemplations about Juneteenth
[This started out as a Facebook post but then I spent several hours writing and researching it...so now it's my first blog post because I already have a website and can just add this section to it for these long form thought essays]
Today is the second federally acknowledged Juneteenth holiday. As I said last year, I think it's very important as a white person to use this holiday as a day for education along with celebration. Last year, we toured the Stagville Plantation Historical Site which focuses on telling the stories of the 900 enslaved people who were kept on the plantation and how they lived. As someone who's family has lived in NC for 7 generations, it was eye-opening to finally learn local history that I'd never heard before, that was *in front of us, but never spoken about*. For example, the only time we went into the main house was to enter the front room where the guide explained that this was where "meetings with other local plantation owners would occur". Ya'll. We all know what those meetings were about, I'm just not typing the 3 letters so as to not get the bots activated on this post. And then she listed some of the local plantation owner names and it's all names of local places around here. Parks, Neighborhoods, Sections of the City, Major Buildings....all named after these slave owners. And us white folk looked surprised at hearing this for the first time because it had been kept from us. And the Black folk in the tour group did not look surprised, because they had kept their oral history alive for their own survival and because no one else would. So they knew who the slave owners had been. And we didn't. My husband and I discussed it afterwards because it had both stood out to us among everything that we learned that day. And we talked about how a few years prior, there had been a petition to change the name of one of the neighborhoods to something else and there had been massive pushback on the basis of "history" and now we were seeing what that history was and why there was a push to change it. We hadn't taken a stance either way when the petition went around as we had moved out of Raleigh by then, but we both sat there and had to acknowledge that there was racism in that pushback to keep the name and there was racism in our ignorance. And when Black people say something needs to be changed, it has a racist history, we need to just LISTEN, because the history we've been taught isn't history...it's a myth to keep us ignorant.
I try to unlearn the history myths all year. And Juneteenth is a time where I focus on the ones specific to Black people and their experiences and exploitation here in America.
This year, I found this video Knowing Better Video: The Part of History You've Always Skipped | Neoslavery which posed this Question: When was the last slave freed in America?
The American Myth says when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation....but that's not true. And that's one of the points of Juneteenth is to acknowledge that enslaved people DIDN'T all become free that one day in America. First off because the document didn't apply to Northern States, just Southern ones. And really, it was the 13th Amendment because that applied to all the states (the video specifically excluded going into the prison exclusion in the 13th Amendment because the channel has another whole video focused on that. This video is specifically only about Chattel Slavery). And also that it took time for the information to be shared, and it took over 2 years for the last plantation slaves to be notified of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But...this is still the American Myth. So we need to dig deeper into the truth about slavery in America. And that it didn't end 150 years ago, like we were taught in school.
The video poses several good questions and backs them up with facts and I don't want to take away from the work that was put into it...so please go give it a watch and support the creator, Knowing Better. But it does explain how white people were able to use Black Code laws to force primarily Black people (although the occasionally white person got caught up in the system, then, much like today, the laws were written to disproportionally affect and impact Black people) into situations where unscrupulous people could force them into a system of chattel slavery to pay for 'criminal fines". Convict leasing was in high demand by industries across the country in the North and South to replace the slave labor they had relied on before the war and just as a way to keep costs down. But the Black Code laws made it so that any Black person could be targeted for a "crime" and set into this system of exploitation. But it went farther than that. Debt Peonage was used as one of the loopholes to keep people trapped in these forced labor systems, treated worse than they were before the Civil War, for indefinite amounts of time and often until death. Higher courts knew that these law loopholes were being used to exploit Black people and did nothing to stop it. Why would they? It was profitable and mostly only affected Black people. In the years after the Civil War, it was documented that over 800,000 people were caught up in the Peonage system.
Here's how Warren Reese, a US District Attorney, described it in 1903 when he investigated the Peonage System, "There have been flagrant abuses and violations on the part of wealthy and influential men. These violations have not been confined to one or two periodical and independent instances, but it has developed into a miserable business and custom to catch up ignorant and helpless Negro men and women upon the most flimsiest and the most baseless charges and carry them before a justice of the peace who is usually a paid hireling of these wealthy dealers. The victim is found guilty and a fine is assessed by which, in the beginning, cannot be paid by the victim, and then it is that one of these slave dealers steps up, pretends to be the friend of the Negro, telling him he will pay him out if he will sign a contract to work for him on his farm... the Negro readily agrees rather than go to the mines, as he is informed he will have to do, his fine is paid, the contract is signed, and the Negro is taken to the farm or mine or mill or quarry of the employer. Placed into a condition of involuntary servitude, he is locked up at nights in a cell, worked under guards during the day from 3 o'clock in the morning until 7 or 8 o'clock at night, whipped in a most cruel manner, is insufficiently fed or poorly clad - in fact the evidence in nearly all the cases investigated reveals that the Negro men are worked nearly naked, while the women are worked in an equally disgraceful manner. Brutal things have transpired and sometimes death has resulted from the infliction of corporal punishment. If they run away the dogs are placed upon their track, and they are invariably retaken and subjected to more cruel treatment. When the time of a good working Negro is nearing an end, he is re-arrested upon some trumped up charge and again carried before some bribed justice and resentenced to an additional time. In this way, Negros have been known to have been worked on these places in this situation for years and years. They can get no word from friends nor is word allowed to reach them from the outside world... They are held in abject slavery without the knowledge of what goes on in the outside world. Indictments so far found based upon some 25 Negro men and women who have been the subjects of these violations. These are some of the most severe instances but it has been discovered there are hundreds of other cases."
Reese tried to get convictions for the people running these schemes, and did secure a few. But the punishments were light and the system remained in place. The Peonage system, Neoslavery here in the United States remained active until December 1941, when after Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt asked his cabinet what Japan would use in the propaganda war... and the treatment of Black people was the answer. So he issued Circular 3591, a memo changing the title of FBI reports from "Peonage" to "Involuntary Servitude and Slavery" and therefore closing the legal loophole that had been exploited all those decades prior for the continuation of chattel slavery in the US. And in September 1942, Alfred Irving became the last chattel slave to be freed in the United States. Not indentured servant, or convict laborer, or debt peon.
The Brownsville Herald, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Juneteenth is important. The notification of the 13th amendment cannot be understated to the enslaved people held prisoner on plantations and in industrial work camps across the country. But it didn't end the subjugation of Black Americans. Subjugation continued in new forms, using new systems. It evolved and is so deeply rooted that it's difficult to see unless you try to learn about the actual history in America, and not the myth of America. It still continues today. Our current legal system is still set up to disproportionately affect Black people and other minorities more harshly than white people. The only way we can start to improve this is by listening to Black voices, educating ourselves on history no matter how uncomfortable it makes us to unlearn the myths we've been taught, and action. Action on the local, state, and federal level. Educate others as you learn. Advocate to change this system that has kept Black people as an unequal class of citizens. Let Juneteenth be a celebration of freedom, an opportunity for education, and a reflection of where we need to go still.
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