Juneteenth and the “End of Slavery in the US”: What’s in a Date?

Juneteenth is nearly here. June 19th was made a national holiday in the United States on June 17th, 2021 when President Joseph Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. It was the day that slavery was ended in Texas, the most remote state in the Confederacy. And it’s now widely considered that June 19th, 1865, was the day that slavery officially ended in the United States.

It’s entirely appropriate to celebrate Juneteenth and the Buzzkill Institute has heartily endorsed it for years. But, as you know, history is so much more complicated than is usually thought. So this episode is dedicated to explaining what Juneteenth was and what actually happened, and to show how difficult it is to pin down an exact and specific date for the ending of slavery in the United States.

But it’s also dedicated to the idea that we should have multiple celebrations of the ending of slavery in the United States, and especially within the individual states. And celebrations about the ending of slavery in lots of parts of the world where it has ended. I’ll get back to that near the end of the show.

Juneteeth: What Happened

As most of you know, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, 1863. I’ll explain more about the details in a minute, but for now it’s important to remember two things. First, it only freed slaves in states that were in rebellion against the United States. Those states made up the Confederacy. Second, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation was very difficult and really only happened as the United States Army defeated Confederate forces and occupied Confederate states.

By June 1865, the American Army was in control of the further reaches of the western Confederacy. The Confederacy’s Army of the Trans-Mississippi (which included Texas rebels) officially surrendered on June 2nd. On June 19th, Union General Gordon Granger announced the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas by issuing his General Order #3 on that day. Here is what the Order said. Listen carefully to the specific language used in the order.

Galveston Texas June 19th 1865. 
General Orders

No. 3.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

By order of Major General Granger

So the power of the US military moving down through the Confederacy and west out to Texas is what eventually ended slavery in those states in rebellion against the United States. That took two-and-a-half years from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. So June 19th, 1865 is a valid date to celebrate the end of slavery in Texas.

The Complexities of the Emancipation Proclamation

But I keep referring to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. As I just said, Lincoln’s Proclamation only referred to those states of the country that were in rebellion against the United States government. That meant the Confederate states. Four slave states remained loyal to the United States – Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. They were “Union States.”

The Emancipation Proclamation did not affect them. So, from 1863 until the end of the war, the only thing that freed slaves in the Confederacy was the advance of the US Army. For two solid years, therefore, slaves in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware remained enslaved. That is, until the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Still, most Americans have thought of slavery ending with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. I’ll give you a famous example. In response to violence against people trying to assert their civil rights in Alabama, President Kennedy spoke to the nation on television on the 11th of June 1963. At a key point in the speech, he said:

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

For the full speech (and transcript), click here: https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/televised-address-to-the-nation-on-civil-rights

Lots of people referred to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, and a great many of them talked about it as (and believed it to be) the date of the end of slavery in the United States. But it wasn’t. For that we needed the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, and, as I’ll explain further, needed even more than that.

The 13th Amendment

Many of you have seen the Stephen Spielberg film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as old Abe. While we historians are unhappy with many of the ways in which history is treated in that film, the basics about the 13th Amendment are fairly accurate.

The Amendment says:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Senate passed the Amendment in April of 1864, but it languished in the House of Representatives until finally passing on January 31st, 1865. And Lincoln signed it the next day. (Although the president doesn’t, technically, have a role in passing Constitutional Amendments and doesn’t need to sign them, Lincoln did so anyway, probably for symbolic reasons). 

So January 31st is the date we should use to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, right? Well, no. Constitutional Amendments must be ratified by the three-fourths of the states. That didn’t happen for the 13th Amendment until December 6, 1865, when Georgia became the 27th state (out of 36 at the time) to ratify it. After that, the Amendment was officially part of the Constitution and became law of the land for all states. Some other states ratified it by the end of January 1866. Their ratification was not necessary, but most did so, except:

Texas, who ratified it in February 1870.
Delaware, who rejected it in 1865, didn’t ratify the Amendment until February 12, 1901.
Kentucky, who rejected it in 1865, didn’t ratify the Amendment until March 18, 1976.
and Mississippi, who rejected it in 1865, didn’t ratify the Amendment until March 16, 1995.

Again, those states “rejecting” the Amendment in 1865, and not ratifying it until much later, didn’t matter, because the three-fourths minimum was reached on December 6, 1865. But you would think that these states would have ratified it just as a formality and avoid looking like racist hold-outs. On the other hand…these were all slaves states, two of them were in the Confederacy, and Mississippi was probably the most viciously racist place in the country well into the 1970s.

But let’s get back to nailing the end of slavery down to a specific date. So, it should be December 6th, right Professor? The anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, right?

Well, yes, that date should be celebrated as the ratification of the 13th Amendment. It marks the _virtual_ end of slavery, but…

Slavery in the “Indian Territories”

Slavery still existed in some of the “Indian Territories,” specifically the part of modern Oklahoma to where the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminoles had been exiled and moved since the 1820s and 1830s, in what is generally known as the “Indian Removal.” Legal historians have shown that these Native American groups had inculcated the enslavement of African-Americans as part of their culture and economic structure. And they have shown that about 14% of the total population of the “Indian Territory” were African-American slaves by the time of the Civil War.

The Indian Territories were considered foreign nations in most aspects of American law. Among other things, this is why the US government had treaties with them. And so the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment didn’t apply to the nations in the Indian Terrorities. New treaties were required to abolish slavery there.

This is what happened by the middle of June, 1866. The Creek Nation, the last to do so, agreed to a treaty which included the abolition of African-American slavery on June 14th, 1866.

See https://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2013/01/when-did-slavery-really-end-in-the-united-states/comment-page-1/ for more of the complicated details of these questions.

Which Date Should We Use?

I’ve given you lots of dates:

The Emancipation Proclamation: January 1, 1863
“Juneteenth” in Texas: June 19, 1865
Ratification of the 13th Amendment: December 6, 1865
Treaties abolishing African-American slavery in the Indian Territories: June 14, 1866

Which one should we use to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States?
All of them! Each date represents a very important stage in the abolition of slavery in the US. After all, we recognize many dates as significant in the commemoration of World War II: 

December 8th, 1941: US entry into the war
June 7th, 1942: winning of the crucial Battle of Midway in the Pacific
June 6, 1944: the D-Day invasion of Europe
May 8, 1945: VE (Victory in Europe) Day
September 7, 1945: VJ (Victory in Japan) Day

Americans and the Allies rightly recognize those dates as crucial points in the campaign to defeat the evils of Nazi Germany and the brutal militarism of Imperial Japan.

Isn’t it also right that we should recognize the many dates that led to abolition of the most immoral aspect of our history and culture? I certainly think so.

I encourage all of you to delve into the history of the abolition of slavery in your state, region, or country. American northerners are proud to come from non-slave states. But slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania, for instance, in a staged process between 1780 and 1840. Hardly a full-blooded moral stance. The British are rightly proud of their (relatively) early abolition of slavery in the British Empire, compared to the United States. But it was done in a ten-year process. Parliament passed an Act on July 22, 1833. It received the Royal Assent on August 28, 1833. But it didn’t get put into place and enforced until August 1, 1834. And even after that, there was an “apprenticeship” period until August 1, 1838. And it didn’t extend the ban on slavery within territory controlled by the East India Company (technically a mercantile organization, but really part of the British government) until 1843. And all of this doesn’t include the compensation paid to former slave-owners.

But things take time, Professor, I can hear you saying. Yes, but think of all the slaves that lived and died during those lengthy in-between periods. Hearing that slavery had been abolished, but not for you, would be an awful thing to live with. And in the interim, you might die of old age or something else, knowing that slavery had been abolished, but you were still a slave.

So please look into this aspect of the history of your country or region. I think you’ll be surprised at how complicated it was, and how long the process took. And that’s all the more reason for voters and citizens to insist on the immediate abolition of moral wrongs being committed by their governments.

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth 

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond. All too aware of the stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen that have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State, Gordon-Reed―herself a Texas native and the descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas as early as the 1820s―forges a new and profoundly truthful narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.

Combining personal anecdotes with poignant facts gleaned from the annals of American history, Gordon-Reed shows how, from the earliest presence of Black people in Texas to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, African-Americans played an integral role in the Texas story.

Reworking the traditional “Alamo” framework, she powerfully demonstrates, among other things, that the slave- and race-based economy not only defined the fractious era of Texas independence but precipitated the Mexican-American War and, indeed, the Civil War itself.

In its concision, eloquence, and clear presentation of history, On Juneteenth vitally revises conventional renderings of Texas and national history. As our nation verges on recognizing June 19 as a national holiday, On Juneteenth is both an essential account and a stark reminder that the fight for equality is exigent and ongoing. 

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