Happy Juneteenth .. but were we really free?

(Courtesy if USA TODAY)

Susan Ross was a 3-year-old slave living in Texas when her family learned they were free. Even as a child, she remembered how excited her older brother was when he received the news. 

 When my oldest brother hear us is free, he give a whoop, run and jump a high fence, and told mammy goodbye,” she told a government worker decades later as part of the slave narratives collected for the 1930s Federal Writers' Project.

He then scooped her up, gave her a hug and kiss, and left the plantation a free Black man. 

“I don’t know where he go, but I never did see him again,” she said.

Ross and her family were among the thousands of Texas slaves who were finally liberated in June 1865, on a day that is now a national holiday – Juneteenth.

Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery, and centers on the arrival of Union troops to Texas on June 19, 1865 with news of emancipation – although the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued 2 ½ years earlier. But Juneteenth did not mean immediate freedom for everyone. Enslaved people in Native American territories had to wait another year for freedom. And despite the legal end of slavery, white Southerners swiftly enacted racist laws, called “Black Codes,” that restricted Black people's freedom for decades to come.

Slavery in Native American territory

The first step in abolishing the institution of slavery started with President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. The proclamation freed all enslaved people in the Confederate states, but not those in the states that formed a border between the North and South. Slavery existed in two border states, Delaware and Kentucky, for nearly six months after Juneteenth because their state legislatures rejected the Thirteenth Amendment after it was passed by Congress in January 1865.

The next major milestones came with the end of the Civil War in April 1865 and the December 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery from any place “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

But Native American nations weren't subject to U.S. jurisdiction in the matter of slavery. After 1865, an estimated 10,000 people remained enslaved among five prominent tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole.

"One of the tricky parts of this history is that on the one hand, both Native Americans and people of African descent are really subjected to this colonial domination," said Barbara Krauthamer, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts. "But then there's also this history of Native Americans making economic and political decisions to participate in that institution of chattel slavery and acquire black people as property as slaves."

Native Americans adopted Black chattel slavery from Europeans as early as the 1500s, said Alaina Roberts, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. But these five specific tribes began assimilating into European-American culture in the late 1700s, including owning slaves as a way to accumulate wealth, she said.

The purpose and value of slaves in Native American territory were similar to those enslaved in the Deep South. Men were used for agricultural labor – planting crops, tending the cotton fields and herding livestock, Roberts said. Women performed household duties – cooking, cleaning, washing and some garden work. 

Union soldiers stationed in Native American territories believed slavery did not compare to chattel slavery that existed in the South.

“It was a consensus of opinion among the white troops who had been with the Indians nearly a year, that slavery of the negroes ... had been only in name,” Wiley Britton, a civil war soldier, wrote in his book, "The Union Indian Brigade in the Civil War."       

Slave narratives, however, tell both sides of the story. Many slaves talked about their masters’ kindness, while others shed light on the brutal side, including beatings and rapes.

“Old Master Frank never worked us hard and we had plenty of good food to eat,” Kiziah Love said of her Choctaw owner, Frank Colbert. But Prince Bee, a former slave in Native American territory, described a brutal beating his brother received when he tried to run away that left him blind in one eye.

“The old Master whipped him ‘til the blood spurted all over his body, the bull whip cutting in deeper all the time,” he recalled. ”He finish up the whipping with a wet coarse towel and the end got my brother in the eye.”

Native American nations existed as autonomous political entities, which gave them the right to their own self-government. Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the Thirteenth Amendment applied to their territories. 

It wasn't until the spring and summer of 1866 that the five tribes agreed to the final terms of their respective treaties with the United States, officially ending slavery in Native American territories, Krauthamer said. 

Love told a Federal Writers' Project worker in 1937 that she shouted to the heavens when she learned she was a free woman in 1866. 

“I was glad to be free,” the 93-year-old woman said. “Well, I jest clapped my hands together and said, ‘Thank God Almighty, I’se free at last!’ ”

Black Codes and convict leasing

After the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, and the April 14 assassination of Lincoln, the task of reconstructing the South fell to President Andrew Johnson. He largely allowed Southern states to reconstruct themselves.

In May 1965, Johnson pardoned former Confederates officials who were willing to pledge allegiance to the United States. This allowed them to regain political power in the South almost immediately after the war. Instead of including newly freed people in the new order, Southern politicians set about restoring elements of the old order. 

Southern states instituted a series of oppressive laws, called "Black Codes," that restricted Black people's freedom of movement and gave white Southerners the legal justification to continue wringing forced labor out of Black people.

The Black Codes varied across Southern states. African Americans had to sign annual labor contracts with white landowners. An 1865 Mississippi statute gave the courts the power to imprison any Black adult who did not have "lawful employment" by the second Monday in January of each year. 

Other Southern states, like South Carolina, mandated that all Black employees were designated "servants" and employers were designated "masters." One Louisiana parish passed a Black Code that required "every negro ... to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conduct of said negro."

"These were laws designed to make sure African Americans couldn't fully exercise their freedom,” said Michael Ross, a history professor at the University of Maryland.

It was a crime for a Black person to carry a firearm, drink alcohol, or gather in small groups past sundown, Ross said. By enforcing these racist and petty laws, Southern states were able to wrangle thousands of Black people into the justice system.

Any trivial offense could be met with harsh sentences and prison time, which fueled the convict leasing system. This practice, which burgeoned in the late 19th century, allowed businesses and farmers to essentially borrow convict workers from the state. Thus a petty crime, or none at all, resulted in Black people providing free labor to help boost the post-slavery Southern economy.

"As an alternative to being locked up in the county jail, people were often arrested and charged with vagrancy and leased out to local farmers," said Ahmed White, a law professor at the University of Colorado.

Convicts were also tasked with building railroads, working mines, and tending the fields. Often chained, beaten, underfed and overworked, leased convicts suffered horrid conditions.

In 1887, the grand jury of Hinds County, Mississippi, released a report detailing the abuses of the convict leasing system in its state. It said the convicts had been "treated more cruelly and brutally than a nation of savages ought to permit inflicted upon its captives."

The grand jury observed the physical abuse they endured and their squalid living conditions, including rats crawling over their faces. 

"They are lying there, dying, some of them on bare boards, so poor and emaciated that their bones almost come through their skin, many complaining for the want of food," the 1887 grand jury report said. The grand jury concluded its report by saying: "God will never smile upon a state that treats its convicts as Mississippi does."

The establishment of Black Codes, which allowed the convict-leasing system to evolve, was a key way Southern politicians preserved the essence of slavery, Ross said. 

“There was a whole series of laws designed to create a separate laboring cast in the South, despite the fact that slavery was over,” he said. “The restrictions on Black freedom ensured African Americans remained a second-class people.”


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