On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill establishing Juneteenth as a Federal Holiday. Signed into law a year after the brutal murder of George Floyd and the chorus of calls for a racial reckoning that followed, the Juneteenth holiday not only acknowledges the delayed fulfillment of equality for African Americans, but, according to President Biden, the nation’s burgeoning commitment to restorative justice.
Symbolic gestures can hold great significance. However, when these gestures center on historic events the circumstances motivating the act can sometimes obscure the complexities or even basic realities of our nation’s past. Juneteenth is a case in point.
In recent years, many have come to associate Juneteenth with the abolition of slavery in the United States, leading some to speculate that Juneteenth is part of a hidden black history—buried by historians and politicians who are committed to sanitizing our nation’s past. But neither of these things is true. For more than half a century, 18th and 19th century US historians have identified slavery as a defining feature of American politics, society, and economic life—even if high school history texts have long failed to adequately capture this reality.
More to the point, if you had not heard of Juneteenth prior to the last few years, it’s not because of a conspiracy to conceal its importance. Ignorance of Juneteenth is owed to two matters: In 1865, Juneteenth had no significance for African Americans outside of Texas, because it does not actually commemorate the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States.
Chattel slavery was abolished several months after Juneteenth by the 13th Amendment—the curious recent, and ahistorical controversies surrounding it notwithstanding.
Since I share an interest in both acknowledging our nation’s historic failings as well as its triumphs, I am compelled to encourage us to embrace the complexity of our past. To this end, it is necessary to provide a little background on Juneteenth and then explore some misconceptions about the 13th Amendment, with an eye toward highlighting its fundamental importance.
Juneteenth was first celebrated in Texas on June 19, 1866, to commemorate the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. When reflecting on Juneteenth in his controversial Netflix special, “The Closer,” comedian Dave Chappelle stressed, correctly, that President Lincoln had declared slaves in Galveston, Texas free long before they had received word of the presidential promulgation. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary order of emancipation in late September of 1862, following the Union Army’s victory at the Battle of Antietam.
I will come back to the full implications of this point, shortly, however for now there are a couple of things I want readers to keep in mind about this matter. First, although Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, it would not take effect until January 1, 1863. Second, Lincoln’s Proclamation conferred freedom exclusively to slaves residing in territories that were not under Union control as of January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was a monumental act, if for no other reason that it made clear that the Civil War was to be a war of emancipation—not simply a war of reunification. Nevertheless, since the Emancipation Proclamation conferred freedom only to slaves residing in Confederate territories, it did not technically end slavery.
This sets the stage for us to appreciate the peculiar importance of the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, and its special place in the history of black Texans.
On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas where he announced the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is worth stressing that enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston occurred not just two and a half years after it took effect. But slaves in Galveston were not set free until more than two months after both the conclusion of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of Confederate sympathizer (and thespian vampire) John Wilkes Booth.
Juneteenth as a Holiday
It should be a given that word of emancipation was a joyous occasion for the “freedmen,” as the former slaves were called in that era.
So, one year later—June 19, 1866—the freedmen in Galveston celebrated the first “Jubilee Day”—what Juneteenth was called prior to its renaming in the 1890s.
Over the next couple of decades, Juneteenth celebrations began to take hold in communities across Texas, sometimes under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau. During the Reconstruction era, Juneteenth celebrations were often bound up with political rallies and voter education campaigns. However, with the defeat of the bi-racial Populist political insurgency and the rise of the Jim Crow regimes—which disfranchised most blacks along with a significant number of poor whites—political mobilization would cease to be a significant component of Juneteenth celebrations by the dawn of the 20th century.
Juneteenth celebrations in Texas waned during the Jim Crow era; however, in 1938 Texas’ New Deal Democratic Governor J.V. Allred proclaimed June 20, 1938 as “Negro Emancipation Day”—encouraging Texas’ black residents to observe the day as they saw fit.
Allred’s promulgation did not establish Juneteenth as a paid holiday. On January 1, 1980, however, Texas would become the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday.
As you would expect, for most of its history, Juneteenth celebrations were regional.
During the Civil Rights Movement, however, Juneteenth would receive national recognition, when—at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign (which was the brainchild of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)—Rev. Ralph Abernathy (of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) proclaimed Juneteenth “Solidarity Day.”
Likewise, during the Great Migration black Texans would bring their (local) Juneteenth celebrations to communities outside of Texas. As a result, the 1980s would witness formal Juneteenth celebrations in several states—including California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, and DC.
In the mid-1990s civic/church leaders in Texas worked with community leaders in New Orleans to mobilize support for a national Juneteenth holiday.
By 2020, only three states—Hawaii and the Dakotas—failed to recognize Juneteenth in some way, paving the way for recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday—celebrated on June 20 of this year (2022).
Emancipation Was Local Until the 13th Amendment Made It National
As a black American, I appreciate the symbolic value of a national holiday that makes plain the Declaration of Independence did not promise equality to all Americans (truthfully, not even all white males). In fact, for the vast majority of African Americans freedom and titular citizenship rights would come only via the Civil War—the closest the nation has come to formal dissolution. This is why, for what it’s worth, I have never celebrated the 4th of July.
As a historian, however, I have long identified the Ratification of the 13th Amendment (December 6, 1865)—not Juneteenth—as black Americans’ Independence Day.
Indeed, while most of us have come to think of Juneteenth as the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, it was the 13th Amendment, not General Granger’s Order no. 3, that formally abolished chattel slavery in America.
To understand this point, readers should recall two points I made previously—the first pertains to Juneteenth’s relevance to black Texans while the second concerns the Emancipation Proclamation’s purview.
Although Juneteenth’s local significance is indisputable, the Union Army had enforced the Emancipation Proclamation much earlier in other states.
Charleston, South Carolina
Slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, were manumitted via the Emancipation Proclamation in February 1865. Unsurprisingly, many black South Carolinians had long celebrated their equivalent version of Juneteenth, “Emancipation Day,” in February.
The Emancipation Proclamation’s scope likewise reveals another problem with the tendency to treat Juneteenth as African American Independence Day—a view that requires one remove Juneteenth from its particular historical context. Because the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to territories engaged in insurrection at the start of 1863, it applied to neither already-conquered territories nor Border states—the four slaveholding states that remained in the union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) and West Virginia (which seceded from Virginia during the Civil War).
To appreciate the significance of the proclamation’s limited purview, we should reflect on a couple of examples.
In Louisiana, which having surrendered very early in the Civil War was already under Union control by late 1862, slavery continued on for more than a year following Lincoln’s Proclamation.
The story does not end there, however.
In 1864 Louisiana would become the first of the former Confederate States to draft a new state constitution, which—in compliance with Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction—abolished chattel slavery. Crucially, Louisiana’s 1864 Constitution abolished slavery more than a year before General Granger would inform slaves in Galveston, Texas of Lincoln’s Proclamation.
So, Louisiana provides yet another, albeit complicated, example of the reality that the equivalent of Juneteenth occurred at different times throughout the South.
The Border States further reveal the problems posed by taking the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation—in Galveston or anywhere else—as black Americans’ Independence Day.
Though exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, Maryland (1864), Missouri (Jan. 1865), Tennessee (Jan. 1865), and West Virginia (Feb. 1865) abolished slavery prior to the Civil War’s conclusion.
Delaware and Kentucky, by contrast, did not formally abolish slavery until the ratification of the 13th Amendment, in December of 1865.
In other words, slavery continued on—legally in two Border States and in violation of the Emancipation Proclamation in pockets throughout the rural South—after Juneteenth, precisely because it is the 13th Amendment (not the Emancipation Proclamation) that abolished chattel slavery in the United States.
The 13th Amendment’s Significance
Over the past several years, the 13th Amendment has gotten a surprisingly bad rap, as a growing number of Americans have come to identify the 13th Amendment as the origin of contemporary mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th” popularized this claim, although, as historian Daryl Michael Scott has argued in his excellent “The Scandal of Thirteentherism,” the claim dates back to the prison rights movement of the 1960s.
The contention that the 13th Amendment is responsible for mass incarceration today rests largely on a narrow and somewhat ahistorical interpretation of the Civil War amendment’s felony exception clause.
The relevant language is found in Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which reads (emphasis mine):
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Those who contend that the 13th Amendment is responsible for the contemporary carceral state read the felony exception clause as evidence that the framers of the 13th Amendment did not actually want to end slavery. Some, likewise, contend that this provision permitted, if not incentivized, the evolution of bound labor from a system of chattel slavery (a system in which slaves and their offspring were the permanent property of individuals who profited off their labor) to a system in which states profited directly from enslaving black convicts. In other words, they trace African Americans’ overrepresentation among the inmate population, today, to “systemic racism” established by the 13th Amendment’s felony exception clause.
If one views the 13th Amendment through this lens, then the felony exception clause is a poison pill that both undercuts the 13th Amendment’s significance and disqualifies it from commemoration. The problem, however, is that efforts to trace contemporary mass incarceration to the 13th Amendment’s felony exception clause rest on sandy ground.
There are a few problems with this now commonplace contention that merit exploration.
First, it necessarily downplays the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. To cut to the quick, the Civil War was, from moment one, about slavery.
The Republican Party of Lincoln was, in fact, an antislavery party. While the GOP was not the North’s first anti-slavery political party, it was the first antislavery party to win a national election. The Republican Party succeeded where the antislavery Liberty and Free Soil Parties that had preceded it had failed, largely because the Republicans cobbled together (under the banner of “free labor ideology”) a broad antislavery coalition—consisting of abolitionists, farmers, working men, and big business—united in the view that slavery was not merely immoral, but it was a drag on American democracy and economic development.
But even as Republicans saw slavery as an impediment to the nation’s economic development and slaveholders as despots with little regard for democracy (a conclusion many white northerners came to during the political crises of the 1850s), they believed that the federal government did not have the authority to abolish slavery. Indeed, prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the US Constitution acknowledged chattel slavery’s legality via three Constitutional accommodations—the Three-Fifths Compromise, the authorization of the Atlantic slave trade through 1808, and the Fugitive Slave Clause.
Therefore, Lincoln and the Republicans could not call for the immediate abolition of slavery. Instead, the Republicans were determined to halt slavery’s geographic expansion, which they argued was consistent with the framer’s intent. After all, the US Constitution had made no provisions for slavery’s expansion, partly because the system of chattel slavery appeared to be economically moribund in 1788. To be sure, cotton slavery was very profitable at the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860; however, slavery’s profitability hinged in no small part on the institution’s physical expansion—owed to cotton production’s exhaustion of the soil.
The implications of Lincoln’s proposed containment policy were clear to the leaders of the slaveholding states. Between December of 1860 and the summer of 1861, 11 of the nation’s 15 slaveholding states would secede in explicit defense of slavery. Indeed, the secessionist states cited as chief among their concerns the growing antagonism of the northern states toward “the slaveholding states.” South Carolina’s declaration of secession, for example, referenced northern states’ nullification of federal guarantees for slavery—in the form of the new and improved Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—as well as the three accommodations to slavery in the US Constitution. Since it referred to the non-slaveholding states‘ refusal to comply with federal protections for slavery, the Palmetto State’s justification for secession could hardly be described as a principled case for “states’ rights.” Simply put, South Carolina, like the 10 states that followed its lead, was clear that its decision to secede (in violation of the US Constitution) was, at its core, about protecting the institution of slavery.
The fact that the Civil War was about the slavery is important to understanding an obvious problem with the contention that the 13th Amendment established the basis for the re-enslavement of black Americans.
From the Civil War’s start (1861) through its conclusion (1865), all of the principals (Republicans, Democrats, Unionists, Secessionists, slaves, and free people of color) understood that the war between the states was fundamentally about slavery—a basic fact that we have lost sight of today. Since the North paid a steep price for its war against the southern “slaveocracy,” northerners would not have abolished slavery only to lay the groundwork for its reintroduction.
This point is amplified by the Congressional debates over the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment’s architects and supporters—particularly Republicans who had previously belonged to the Free Soil Party—viewed chattel slavery as a threat to laboring people of all races, for reasons I alluded to above.
Consider Senator Henry Wilson’s (Radical Republican from Massachusetts) case for the 13th Amendment:
“I tell you sir, that the man who is the enemy of the black laboring man is the enemy of the white laboring man the world over. The same influences that go to keep down and crush down the rights of the poor black man bear down and oppress the poor white laboring man.”
Many Republicans saw slavery as what we might think of as the most brutal expression of the asymmetrical relationship between the owners of the means of production and their workers. Consequently, the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery and “involuntary servitude” reflected so-called Radical Republicans’ desire to establish fairer terms of work for the laboring classes.
If one considers the 13th Amendment’s framers’ motivations, it should be clear that its aims did not include opening the door to the return of chattel slavery. This point is further amplified by the ratification of the 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments, which respectively established African Americans’ citizenship rights and black male suffrage. But this begs the question: if the 13th Amendment set out to abolish chattel slavery, how do we explain the 13th Amendment’s felony exception clause?
Well, the felony exception clause was essentially boilerplate language. It first appeared in the Northwest Ordinance (1787) which outlawed slavery or involuntary servitude in the new territories (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin), “except whereof the party have been duly convicted of a crime.”
Congress would ultimately require that the state constitutions of every free state admitted to the Union thereafter use the same language.
And, of course, the vast majority of individuals impacted by the felony exception clause in the Northwest territories and the free states generally were white.
Why would the United States permit states the power to compel convicts to work?
Involuntary servitude for debtors and criminals was a long-accepted form of punishment in Europe, England, the American colonies, and even Africa.
Why? To understand the broad appeal of coerced convict labor one should think about the role played by resources in determining what people saw as appropriate forms of punishment. Incarcerating able-bodied criminals would constitute a drain on often scarce resources—particularly for frontier communities—insofar as the act of housing prisoners requires the construction of escape-resistant facilities, as well as expenditures for guards and, of course, food for inmates. It’s worth noting that the cost associated with incarcerating convicts was a source of corporal punishment’s appeal. Subjecting criminals to forced labor, however, punished the culprits, while hypothetically adding value to society or, more likely, enriching particular powerful interests via convicts’ unpaid labor.
To be clear, I am not endorsing such practices. Indeed, I see no value, today, in the 13th Amendment’s felony exception clause. I am simply explaining a rationale, which not only predates chattel slavery in the United States but this practice transcended race. As historian Daryl Scott has noted, “during the colonial era, more than 50,000 whites [sic] convicts were given the most extreme Hobson’s choice: an indenture (contract) to slave for a term of years in British North America or to be put to death for their crime.” Scott goes onto say, white bound laborers “were often sold to work for masters at the auction blocks where Africans were sold, and both types of slaves, convict and chattel, were known to run away together.”
The potential anti-democratic implications of compelling convicted felons to work are undeniable, as the profit motive could easily incentivize states to enact laws designed to incarcerate the poor and (literal) disenfranchised. This is certainly what happened under the postbellum South’s brutal convict lease system, in which the cash-starved southern states leased, for a profit, convicted almost exclusively black felons to businesses.
While Thirteenthers, as Scott calls them, tend to characterize the convict lease system as the bridge between slavery and contemporary mass incarceration, it is important to keep in mind that the last southern state to repeal these laws, Alabama, did so in 1928 (94 years ago). Several other states—Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Mississippi—had already ended convict leases by the 1890s.
As scholars such as Elizabeth Hinton, John Clegg, and Adaner Usmani have convincingly demonstrated, the era of mass incarceration begins around 1965. The mid-1960s witnessed a surge in violent crimes owed, in no small part, to the disproportionate effects of deindustrialization on young black men and the passage of the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA)—which would establish the precedent for federal aid to local law enforcement a full century after the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
To be clear, I am not making a case against Juneteenth. Holidays rarely capture the full scope of the subjects they purport to honor. For example, while Americans commemorate July 4, 1776 as the birth of our nation, the Patriots did not formally win their independence from the British Crown until September 3, 1783 (Treaty of Paris). To channel the spirit of Jerry Seinfeld: Anyone can declare their independence; what matters is achieving it! Better yet, the 13 Colonies only became the United States with the ratification of the Constitution on June 21, 1788.
The reality is that holidays don’t so much commemorate accurate understandings of our nation’s past, as much as they celebrate broadly held ideals and aspirations. As a national holiday, Juneteenth commemorates many laudable ideals—most notably the promise of racial equality. And while lingering racial disparities in income, wealth, healthcare, education, and mass incarceration make plain we have yet to achieve this goal, Juneteenth reminds us of both the progress black Americans have made since the Civil War and the work we, as a nation, have yet to complete.
But even as I appreciate the symbolic value of our new federal holiday—the first since King Day— if we hope to uphold the ideals of racial equality and, dare I say, democracy we must appreciate the fact that, in origin, Juneteenth did not actually commemorate the formal abolition of slavery in the United States. Why? Well, no matter what you’ve heard, history does not repeat itself. Still, the study of our nation’s past not only helps contextualize where we are, today, but it can also help us anticipate some of the pitfalls that await us in the future. If we allow symbolism and emotionalism to completely displace fact-based historical inquiry, however, then we risk, inadvertently or not, endorsing narratives that are, ironically, antagonistic to the very ideals that motivated the freedmen’s and later civil rights leaders’ political quest for equality.
A military order, the Emancipation Proclamation, did not formally end slavery. Chattel slavery was formally abolished in the United States via democratic process, by the 13th Amendment.
If the importance of this distinction is too abstract, I will ask the readers to recall when Kanye West called for repealing the 13th Amendment. Sadly, Mr. West is not the only black descendent of American slaves I have heard calling for the 13th Amendment’s repeal, which is precisely why Juneteenth celebrations should acknowledge that—notwithstanding the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation to defeating the slaveholders’ treasonous insurrection—the 13th Amendment abolished slavery nationwide.
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Teaser photo credit: Juneteenth festival in Milwaukee, 2019. By Milwaukee VA Medical Center – https://www.flickr.com/photos/milwaukeeva/48104553921/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106683535