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Juneteenth ‘a moment in long-running struggle to realize freedom’

Charles Blow, New York Times

Last week at a Juneteenth concert on the south lawn of the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris said that on June 19, 1865, after Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, “The enslaved people of Texas learned they were free.” On that day, she said, “They claimed their freedom.”

Harris, who stood alongside President Biden when he signed the legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday, expressed a common oversimplification, one born of our tendency to conjugate history’s complexities: Although it’s a mark of progress to commemorate the end of American slavery, it’s imperative that we continue to underscore the myriad ways in which Black freedom was restricted long after that first Juneteenth.

To start, there is some debate over whether most of the estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas at the time didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation. As the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. told me, “I have never met a scholar who believes that’s true.”

But more important, emancipation was not true freedom – not in Texas and not in most of the American South, where a vast majority of Black people lived. It was quasi freedom. It was freedom with more strings attached than a marionette.

Most Black people couldn’t claim their freedom on June 19, 1865, because their bodies (and their free will) were still being policed to nearly the same degree as when they were enslaved.

The laws governing the formerly enslaved “were very restrictive in terms of where they could go, what kind of jobs they could have, where they could live in certain communities,” said Daina Ramey Berry, the dean of humanities and fine arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.”

As the Rediscovering Black History blog at the National Archives notes, “Most white Texans desired to keep Blacks as close to their formerly enslaved status as possible; therefore, they fiercely resisted any actions that would potentially elevate Blacks to a competitive social, political and economic status.” This was true throughout much of the former Confederacy.

And it was explicit. Upon arrival in Galveston, the Union general Gordon Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said “the connection heretofore existing” between “former masters and slaves” would become “that between employer and hired labor” and that “freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

The order also had a curious stipulation: that freedmen would “not be supported in idleness.”

A notice from Granger published days later in The Galveston Daily News said “no persons formerly slaves will be permitted to travel on the public thoroughfares without passes or permits from their employers.” In other words, white people would still dictate where Black people could be.

In 1866, a Texas state constitutional convention adopted the state’s Black Codes, codifying suffocating limits on Black autonomy. African Americans were often assigned to white guardians for work without pay. The penalty for quitting often included imprisonment for breach of contract. Other laws prevented freedmen from having free access to public facilities.

Juneteenth is not as the moment Black people attained freedom but a moment in the struggle to realize freedom. When slavery is replaced by a succession of systems – Black codes, Jim Crow, mass incarceration – a true, comprehensive freedom still eludes.

As Corey Walker, the director of the program in African American studies at Wake Forest University, emphasizes, the idea of freedom is “a project that is never complete. It is never fulfilled, even at the moment of Juneteenth. And it’s one that is ever evolving to this day.”

Charles Blow writes Opinion columns for The New York Times.