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Still Free-ish: Another Juneteenth, Still Freeing the Future

Hunter Havlin Adams, III 2023© [1]

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University




Let America Be America Again


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.


(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.


(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)


Who said the free? Not me?

Surely not me? The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?


For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.


O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again! [2]


“Let America be America Again,” was written amid the Great Worldwide Depression (1929-1939), by the great poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, Harlem Renaissance innovator of jazz poetry, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri, James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901–May 22, 1967). The title, I remember, was used as a 2004 presidential campaign slogan by Democratic United States Senator John Kerry, which, in 2016, took a terrifying twist, with “Make America Great Again.”


Almost a century later, in this post-pandemic possibility of a recession, Hughes's haunting poem, in an awkward way, captures my ambivalence towards Juneteenth National Independence Day, a law signed, by President Biden in June 2021, which commemorates the end of “American slavery.” It is now one of 12 federal holidays.


What should provide pause during widespread Juneteenth celebrations, is not the seemingly rushed “racial reckoning” efforts following 26 million people protesting police violence, notably the live-streamed 2020 murder of George Floyd, nor non-Black folks mingling and mixing in the traditional culturally specific festivities. What is troubling — as diversity, equity, and inclusion endeavors in corporate and education spaces are contested, battle cries against critical racism theory are broadcast in every medium, and laws banning books are emboldened — is the lack of difficult debate of what “freedom” means, for who, to what degree, and how might it be sustained, given Supreme court rulings eroding Black people’s hard-fought human, civil and voting rights. And so, misinformation and myths about Juneteenth persist.


What’s in the name of June’teenth? It is a combination of the words June and nineteenth. Two days before the summer solstice on June 19, 1865, two months after the Confederates States surrendered ending the Civil War, and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, signed an executive order, The Emancipation Proclamation, which ostensibly freed, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State…” was when Black people in Galveston, Texas got the memo, General Order No. 3, by US Army General Gordon Grainer,


“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.” Source link: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/182778372


Though the Order was posted on bulletin boards around town, and covered in Texas newspapers, there are reports of leaks. The Official Record of the 29th Regiment USCT (United States Colored Troops), Third Brigade, Second Division was in Galveston for three days, 18,19, and 20 June. It reads: “June 18 …the news of freedom came by boat to Galveston, Texas… According to folklore, Black stevedores who were loading and unloading ships at Pier 21 got wind of the news, and leaked it before the official announcement was made.” According to a former captive, Felix Haywood, “Soldiers all of a sudden was everywhere. Coming in bunches, crossing and walking and riding. Everyone was singing. We was all walking on golden clouds: hallelujah!” Pension records at the National Archives and published in Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois, show Captain William E. Daggett in command of Company F served with the 29th USCT for over 18 months, So Illinois was represented at the original Emancipation Day of Galveston, TX.

 

However, plantation owners, resenting it, reluctantly communicated the negative news to their former captives. The Bill of Rights Institute raised two Comprehension and Analysis Questions:

How does General Order No. 3 fully execute the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863? What does the more than 2-year gap reveal about the complexity of ending slavery?


What does this order suggest freedmen should do in their new position? Why might this suggestion lead to future problems between freedmen and landowners?


This Order achieved sporadic compliance, due to the lack of Union military presence. Even so, it motivated thousands of brave Black Texans, from 1865-1930, to form "Freedom Settlements”. This was a seemingly impossible task, given the State's Black Codes legislation and the 1866 Homestead Act that banned them from accessing the 160 acres in public land available to each White settler.


Dr. Andrea Roberts, assistant professor of urban planning in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, and founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, documents how these people accumulated land via cash purchase or adverse possession, and founded 557 historic Black settlements or towns, though often in coastal or flood-prone bottomlands on the edges of plantations and city boundaries. [The Texas Freedom Colonies Project: Thick-Mapping Vanishing Black Places: https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/the-texas-freedom-colonies-project-thick-mapping-vanishing-black-places.htm]


And, all over the South, Black people dared to test Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, which set up 400,000 acres of liberated land from South Carolina to Northern Florida, and established self-governing ‘freedom enclaves’ with schools, businesses, civic organizations, and churches. But, their dreams dried up like raisins in the sun: on April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated.


While Congress was not in session, the newly sworn-in, ‘people as property’- owning President, Andrew Johnson, pursued programs to reconstruct the Confederacy, advance States’ rights, pardon the traitors- provided they took an Oath of allegiance to the Republic-, and then, enacted an executive order repealing Special Field Order No. 15. His command coalesced sociopaths into a swarm, who like locusts, later "disappeared" many Black communities of resistance leaving their descendants to tell the story.


Elsewhere, ‘free-ish’ Black folks, were coerced to relinquish property  to the former White landowners and were forced into forms of farm tenancy as day laborers, sharecroppers, or into a convict lease system used by local governments and States, exploiting a callous clause in the 13th Amendment allowing the enslavement of persons convicted of crimes. Writer, Douglas A. Blackmon explores this in, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.


This system of oppression kick-started what Syracuse University political science professor, Elizabeth F. Cohen terms dilemmas of citizenship and semi-citizenship. In other words, “whose” rights count, and to what extent? Unlike European immigrants who obtain full citizenship, the Second Constitution’s Reconstruction Amendments awarded Black people, semi-citizenship status with partial bundles of political rights. Legislated laws and/or those created by court order, for example, affirmative action, voting, or civil rights, make semi-citizens’ status precarious—laws may be meagerly enforced or overruled. Pursuits of happiness may be ostracized or criminalized.


Since the 17 June 2021 Presidential Proclamation, more and more stories of Juneteenth recklessly conflate it as equivalent to the settler colonists’ Declaration of Independence from England, on July 4, 1776. That’s absurd. The tricky truth is, General Granger's Orders No. 3 and also No.4, and enforcement efforts of them, constitutes, exclusively, only these essential elements commemorated by the Juneteenth holiday.


What started in 1866, as an ambitious affair of local Black Texans called Emancipation Day, where 250,0000 folks gathered, sharing meals, with dancing, singing, parades, and prayers, gradually gained significance as the descendants of those founding freedom communities improvised the tradition as they relocated to different parts of the country. Now, it has become an annual ritual of national remembrance, commemorated in homes, schools, churches, and community centers, with parades, picnics, and barbecues, concerts, literary, and cultural galas. They held oratorical contests and debated ideas, Many also held ceremonies in cemeteries to honor their ancestors. And, there are several unofficial Juneteenth flags.


Celebrate what those Texas liberty leaders inaugurated, embodied, and enacted within their freedom spaces: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, circular economics, purpose, creativity, and faith — one hundred years before activist and author, Dr. Maulana Karenga imagined the seven principles of the post-Christmas celebration, Kwanzaa ,in 1966. They had wealth in their relationships.


So, in your Juneteenth family and community gatherings, remember blues singer, Howling Wolf’s warning, “Evil is always trying to ruin your happy home.” Evil never rests, and neither should we. In essence, everyone is ‘free-ish.’ Every generation, everywhere, must free the future to bring fairness and goodness into the world.


BlogNotes 

[1] Reprinted with author's  permission  from Southside Drive Magazine. 


[2]The above is an excerpt from Let America Be America Again: Conversations with Langston Hughes, a collection of speeches and conversational essays by, and interviews with, Langston Hughes, edited by Christopher C. De Santis. Oxford University Press ©2022

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