Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Juneteenth and The Road to Freedom

 I have resisted responding to posts on my wall lately about Juneteenth because I am tired of trying to explain things I know to an audience that either does not even read or pay attention or that comes off with a knee jerk response attacking me about my ego. Before I begin I need to give my credentials. I am not a celebrity, I am not black (although I have an African American ancestor who was a freed slave), I am not a politician with all the answers, nor am I a recognized graduate of any Ivy League School. I am simply a retired teacher of  American history and English. 

The media, general public and government officials have criticized American history teachers and the system of teaching itself demanding reform.  This is well deserved and reform is needed. I spent the first six years of my teaching career teaching white man's political history until I lived and taught in Albuquerque, NM and had the good fortune to work with a public school system that supported the need for change. Perhaps it is because New Mexico has the most diverse population of any state and in addition, Anglos (non Hispanic or Latino) are not appreciated because of the take over of the land from Mexico during the Mexican-American War. 

When the administration came to the 8th grade teachers of English and American history at John Adams Middle School and suggested the teachers of these subjects create a new program and new way of teaching American history, I jumped on with enthusiasm. Unlike a lot of my colleagues who were elementary certified, I had duel certification in those subjects. In addition, I already had a great deal of knowledge of African-American history and welcomed the expansion of my knowledge. Because of this, I was put in charge of developing the curriculum. I was already teaching the integration of cultural history and the English and social studies content in my classes. I also had been exploring Indigenous history because of my ancestry  that included an Indigenous great great grandmother of the Saponi Indians of the Southeast. I welcomed all the training and was the leader in creating teaching based on projects, cross cultural teaching and integration of content. One of the more important units I taught had to do with the Civil War and debunking all of the myths of that complex war and its effect on our country that still exists today. One of the biggest myths is that Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. This myth has been perpetuated by partisans from both the Democratic and Republican parties and has even found its way into stories that are now being told about Juneteenth that are not true. 

I have a great deal of respect for this celebration and even taught about it when I was still teaching. When I moved to Louisville, Kentucky I took the story of Juneteenth to the librarian at the Portland Library and the presentation I gave there became so popular that I was invited to do the presentation at major branches of the library from 2015 until I moved in 2018. I understand the importance of Juneteenth and in 2019 when I made a statement to challenge something being said on face book, I was immediately attacked by those people who perpetuate these myths without the actual facts and I believe that is damaging. In response to those attacks I wrote a blog on my blog page at entitled Why Juneteenth is a Big Deal. I have even written a short story set in the neighborhood of Portland in Louisville, Kentucky entitled Juneteenth to emphasize the importance of the celebration of this day to the people who are descendants of slaves and explain the traditions around its celebration.  I am concerned about the claims made about Juneteenth and its importance that are a far cry from why this day is important. Therefore, I think I need to give some history surrounding the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Because I will be describing the events that led to the issue of this Executive Order and referring to what it actually said I am posting a link to the document so you can read for yourself.

It is September, 1862 and the Union as well as the Confederacy has just fought the bloodiest battle of the Civil War at Antietam Creek with losses of over 10,000 soldiers of either side. Sentiment in support of the War in the North (especially among those young Irishmen dying for something they didn't really believe in) is decreasing. The most critical product needed in the North is men. The Irish of the Northeast are bearing the most loss from this war and have labeled it a "rich man's war, but a poor man's fight." The men are also growing upset that the runaway slaves are filling contraband camps and taking the jobs available because the Irishmen are at war. The sentiment in the South is still a willingness to never surrender and to continue to fight despite great hardship. Lincoln is faced with one decision, he is going to have to institute the draft. This is not something he wants to do because he knows of the wrath that already exists. Lincoln also needs a quick end to the war so he can focus his energy in the territories west of the Mississippi to take over those lands from the Indigenous people living there that are resisting. Plans are already in effect to institute a draft beginning in March of 1863. Lincoln knows there will be trouble when this happens and indeed there was. Something had to be done to get the South to give up. The document chosen to convince the South to give up was the Emancipation Proclamation - a bribe to the South. It was never intended to abolish slavery, in fact, if the South had continued fighting, Juneteenth would never have happened. 

I have listed a link to the text above, but I will paraphrase here. Lincoln told the Confederacy if you keep fighting beyond January of 1863, your slaves will be free.. When Union soldiers marched into Texas on June 19, 1865 the slaves were freed - why - because the South continued to fight and lost. The information being posted about this date gives false representation about the emancipation of the slaves. I heard a speaker talk about this day as the 4th of July for African Americans in addition to the continued myth about Lincoln being the Great Emancipator. In fact, Lincoln made many statements regarding slavery and if one looks at those statements and those actions, slavery was unimportant to Lincoln. He wanted to preserve the Union and keep the South so that he could turn his attention to the territories and fulfill America's Manifest Destiny. When did the slaves actually become free then? The road to freedom was difficult and hard. That is why it has taken 150 years or more since the Civil War to bring freedom to African Americans as well as all the marginalized people (including women) who have never been fully free and why we remain a divided nation. 

The first step toward freeing the slaves took place on April 16, 1862. This is the day slavery was actually abolished in The District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) At the end of the Civil War those slaves living in what was the Confederate States of America were set free - Juneteenth. There were, however, five border states that were slave states that did not secede from the Union and where slavery still existed. These states were: Maryland. Delaware, W. Virginia (the area of Virginia that refused to secede), Missouri, and Kentucky (my home state). Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist in Congress) began to work with Abraham Lincoln on an Amendment to the Constitution that would once, and for all, abolish slavery in the United States. Getting the Amendment passed in Congress was a long and tedious battle, even though the South was still not fully represented in Congress. There is a movie entitled Lincoln that gives a fairly accurate portrayal of this story. In fact, I think it won some Academy Awards. A lot of those awards are based on things other than a recognition of the quality of the work as opposed to the popularity, but this movie was popular and is worth seeing. 

The 13th Amendment, its text and ratification says something about the general attitude toward slaves and African Americans in general that existed not only in the South but also the country in general in 1865. This is not to defend the South for its abhorrent treatment of Black people, especially during the days of Jim Crow, but to underscore a general attitude of systemic racism that has existed throughout the country both North and South since the founding of this country and is why we are still dealing with the abhorrent treatment of people of color in this country. 

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery but there is a little known part of the Amendment that has to do with keeping slavery operational in the prison system in this country. Slavery was abolished except for those who are in prisons. That has given the government permission to take men and women  in prison to work on chain gangs instead of do what the system is supposed to do - rehabilitate. In addition, people of color make up the largest percentage of the prison population, this clause allows the government to keep them in involuntary servitude instead of addressing the things needed to keep them out of the "revolving door" that is their path. 

The ratification of the Amendment is also important to consider. In December of 1865, the Amendment was ratified when 27 of the then 36 states ratified the Amendment. By this time the 11 states of the Confederacy had been readmitted to the Union. One of the requirements for admission was ratification of the 13th Amendment. Again, it was the South that made the difference. If they had not ratified the Amendment it would not have passed. Contrary to teachings, there was no widespread support for abolishing slavery. The majority of the interest in the freed slaves came from the Radical Republicans in Congress who pushed through legislation intended to help the freed slaves but most of which ended up in the hands of corrupt administrators and scalawags. My home state of Kentucky did not even ratify the 13th Amendment until 2005 when the country's awareness of Juneteenth and other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement were coming to light. 

The road to freedom for African Americans in this country has been one that has benefited all the groups left out of participation in the freedoms set up in the Declaration of Independence. It saddens me to see these groups splinter and divide their resources when if they came together they would be much more powerful. 

For all the reasons listed above, despite the 13th Amendment people of color remained in slavery under a system known as the Jim Crow Laws and the control of the Ku Klux Klan until Black Americans organized under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to raise awareness and people of conscious joined with them to break the system. The passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was a landmark in our history not only for African Americans but also all the marginalized groups (including women) that have suffered from not only racism but discrimination because they don't fit with "American" values. Movements that sprang from the Civil Rights Movement are bringing awareness to the systemic racism that still exists and holds people of color, Asians, Indigenous people, women and even those who practice a religion such as Judaism or Islam in chains. The road to freedom for African Americans in this country has been one that has awakened our conscious but now is the time for groups such as Black Lives Matter realize the importance of unity so that their power will move beyond the level of partisan politics or become targets to be used by people such as Donald Trump and what he supports. As Americans begin to free themselves from myths and half truths about democracy and our Founding Fathers, we will begin to come together in a force so strong that we will finally have not only a government "by the people and for the people" we will live on a planet that can continue to support us in living sustainable lives of joy and peace.   

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