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Reflecting on Our Nation’s History for Juneteenth

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In 1684 a ship named The Isabella arrived at the American port of Philadelphia carrying human cargo from Africa. This was not the first slave ship to arrive in America, but it was the first carrying enslaved Africans. These Africans became African Americans upon departing the ship and stepping foot on this soil. They would be joined by countless other ships carrying the same cargo.

Over the next two and half centuries, these African Americans would live as an enslaved population with no legal rights. They would be separated from their families. They would be bought, sold, and traded like cattle. They would be stripped of all humanity, but they would not lose hope through this unimaginably miserable existence. Their enslavement would eventually lead to the south's secession from the Union and its establishment of the Confederate States of America, a territory where slavery of Africans Americans remained lawful. The slavery dispute would ultimately be resolved following the four years American Civil War, ending with the collapse of the Confederacy when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia on April 9, 1865.

There was no CNN or Facebook, and the news of General Lee's surrender and the downfall of slavery would not reach many Americans for months and even years. Southern farmers insisted upon harvesting their crops before emancipating enslaved farmworkers.

On June 19, 1865, African Americans in Galveston, Texas, woke before dawn and began their day the same way they had for as long as they could remember - as slaves working long hours and even longer days in the Texas heat to the benefit of the enslaver who owned the plantation. Union Army General Gordon Granger had arrived in Galveston one day prior and had brought with him 2,000 federal troops to occupy the State of Texas. On June 19, General Granger read General Order Number 3 aloud from his balcony for the citizens of Galveston to hear, saying, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Thus June 19th has become the day we celebrate the end of slavery, Emancipation Day 1865.

The reactions among the former slaves were mixed - some remained on the Plantations because they knew no other way of life, while others chose to leave and embark on a different path. Former slave Sarah Ford was interviewed in Houston after the Generals proclamation was read and she recalled, "When freedom come, I didn't know what dat was." Ford's former master told her family they were welcome to stay except for her father, who he believed to be a bad influence.

Ford went on:

"Papa left but come back with a wagon and mules what he borrows and loads mama and my sister and me in and us go to East Columbia on de Brazos River and settles down. Dey Hires me out and us have our own patch, too, and dat de fust time I ever seed any money. Papa builds a cabin and a corn crib and us sho' happy, 'cause de bright light done come and dey no more whippin's."

After the war ended, America entered a period of Reconstruction, restoring the south as part of the Union and ratifying the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, protecting the rights of African Americans through the Constitution.

It has been over 150 years since the dispute surrounding the personhood and dignity of Africans Americans was settled. Despite the settled nature of this dispute, legalized discrimination and institutionalized racism persisted in American life during the Jim Crow era for the next 100 years. Slavery was replaced with bogus schemes of sharecropping and of arresting newly emancipated slaves and allowing Southern farmers to “lease” the convicts. Social Security benefits were not available to farm and domestic workers. Colleges refused to admit black students. The Ku Klux Klan emerged and terrorized African Americans with domestic terrorism including violence and lynchings. When black Americans achieved success, they were the victims of violent destruction, as with the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which 35 square blocks of home were burned to the ground. African American veterans were not allowed to take advantage of the 1944 GI Bill because banks did not permit loans to African Americans.

It wasn’t until the 1960's that our society began to rethink segregation and we passed important pieces of civil rights legislation. But the implementation of new laws requiring desegregation was met with violent opposition. Still, racism, both individual and systemic, continues today. The link between America's history of enslavement and the current state of affairs is undeniable.

If our history tells us anything, it's that change does not happen overnight. Change is agonizingly difficult, the progress is slow, and the road seems to be never ending. We will get there eventually, but we must band together, support our black brothers and sisters, never stop fighting for what is right, and never forget the awful places we have been in the past because we are, after all, Americans.

This is a day to celebrate the end of slavery, but it is with a heavy heart in light of recent events. So let’s use this time as a moment to reflect and renew our commitment to ending racism and systematic unequal treatment that continues to plague our nation.

Happy Juneteenth from Lanier Law Group!