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A cause for celebration?

6/22/2010, 9:39 a.m.
“Man, I thought they only had big celebrations for heroes.”

A cause for celebration?

Major General Gordon Granger of the U.S. Army arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced on June 19, 1865 that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He issued General Order No. 3 that declared all slaves were thenceforth free, and had to be paid wages for their labor.

Gen. Granger’s visit to Texas at first seems to be beneficent, but in fact it was bizarre. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862 and it became effective on Jan. 1, 1863. So Gen. Granger was two years and almost six months too late in bringing the good news to Texas.

What made the event even more bizarre is that Congress had passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 31, 1865, almost five months before the general’s visit. The constitutional emancipation was far more extensive than the presidential proclamation, which extended only to those states and regions that had joined the cause of the Confederacy.

Nonetheless, the date June 19, 1865 seemed to capture the imagination of blacks in Texas, and their Juneteenth celebration soon expanded to surrounding states. Now there is a major effort to make Juneteenth a national celebration.

Blacks who understand the truth of this history are embarrassed by the efforts to elevate June 19th to a national level. For more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, plantation owners in Texas conspired to keep their slaves in the fields. Even after the 13th Amendment was ratified by the states, slavery continued surreptitiously in much of the South. Freedom was still elusive.

Douglas A. Blackmon, a former New York Times reporter, published “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” This well researched book showed how many of the blacks in the South were kept on the farm.

One device was to have the sheriffs arrest recently freed slaves as vagrants. Indeed, they were unemployed and had no money in their pockets. Charged with vagrancy, convicted and imprisoned, they were then leased to plantation owners and others for the term of their sentences.

It is understandable why blacks in Texas might want to remember Juneteenth. For them it was a breath of fresh air after countless years of uncompensated servitude. However, other dates during that era are far more historically significant.

One such date is Dec. 6, 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified by the states and became law. It states in part “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Another date is July 16, 1863, when the Massachusetts 54th valiantly attacked Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and became the first black regiment to enter the Civil War to end slavery.

It is important for African Americans to remember that their ancestors fought against slavery and that the nation ultimately rejected the legitimacy of that cruel practice. How is it of national significance that Gen. Granger was two and a half years late in delivering to Texas the news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? There is no message for African Americans to embrace. A people must be careful of what values they accept as essential to their history.