After Juneteenth, many Black people in Texas remained enslaved
In 1903, a Black man walked into an office in a small town in Texas, seeking any news about whether slavery had ended.
The earnest inquiry from the man, who had been forced to labor without pay, came more than 38 years after Major Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island, Texas, with more than 2,000 federal soldiers to deliver the belated news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Texas. Word of the end of bondage for the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state arrived on June 19, 1865 — two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Despite the clear instructions in General Order No. 3 and the announcement that day by Granger’s men that “the people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” not every enslaved Black person in Texas was freed with that proclamation.
Enslavers across the state resisted the general’s order, hiding the news from enslaved Black people. Many Black people were forced to continue to labor under the oppression of ruthless enslavers and unscrupulous plantation owners.
Last year, President Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. On Thursday, in advance of the holiday, human rights activists installed a 150-foot Pan-African flag garden on the Ellipse, south of the White House, demanding that Biden establish a commission to study reparations. “Making Juneteenth a holiday is not enough,” one banner said.
The announcement on June 19, 1865, did not end slavery in Texas. The barbaric institution continued in other forms and by other names, according to historians.
“There was almost universal agreement from statements of enslaved people that many Texas slaveowners held off making the announcement,” said historian C.R. Gibbs. “They wanted another crop.”
Many Black Texans didn’t receive the news until 1866. “Slaveowners resorted to tricks. They delayed. They postponed. This was money,” said Gibbs, author of “Black, Copper & Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment.” “They wanted to continue to get every last drop of sweat from slavery.”
Even after Granger’s order, Black people remained in “such a delicate situation in Texas,” Gibbs said. “You have the collapse of the Confederate government. And roving bands of men who wanted to turn the clock back. A Union officer once said, ‘Given a choice between hell and Texas, I would live in hell and rent out Texas.’ It was just that bad in Texas.”
During the Civil War, Texas was a refuge for enslavers evading emancipation. “Slaveowners in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana ran their ‘Negroes’ from Arkansas, Louisiana and other parts of the states into Texas because the U.S. Army had not reached Texas,” said W. Marvin Dulaney, a retired University of Texas-Arlington historian and president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
After Granger’s order, the Union Army literally had to march across Texas to enforce the order and free enslaved Black people. In some cases, enslavers killed enslaved Black people rather than allow them their freedom.
“Texans were so resentful that African Americans would become free, they literally carried out a pogrom,” Dulaney said, citing a speech by Barry A. Crouch, a professor of history at Gallaudet University. “They killed as many as 2,500. They were just murdered outright across the state.”
Violence increased against African Americans between 1865 and 1868, Dulaney said. In some cases, enslaved Black people in Texas were run down by bloodhounds or shot rather than be released from bondage. “It takes almost over a year for the Union Army to literally go across the state and free African Americans from slavery,” Dulaney said.
Slavery formally ended in the United States on Dec. 6, 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which stated, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
That “exception clause” created a loophole, permitting slavery to continue in another form and allowing officials in the South to perpetuate slavery conditions, including forced prison labor and convict leasing.
Granger’s Juneteenth order contained a similar caveat. It declared that “all slaves are free” but that the relationship between “former masters and slaves” should become “that between employer and hired labor.” It continued, “The freedmen are advised to remain 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.”
That last line, historians say, set the stage for the continuation of slavery through convict leasing and “Black code” laws that would restrict the freedom of Black people.
“Granger was warning them against idleness,” Dulaney said. “That order would lead to creation of vagrancy laws and Black codes that would be wielded against Black people, forcing many into forced labor without pay.”
The sharecropping system and laws prohibiting Black people from hunting and fishing also prevented Black people from feeding themselves and required them to work for White people.
“You had to sign a work contract at the beginning of each year or you could be rented out to a plantation,” Dulaney said. “In many cases, it was like being sold. The owners would have control over you. It was like being a slave.”
Some enslavers resisted the emancipation order by fleeing — taking their enslaved workers south into Cuba and Brazil, where slavery had not been outlawed. The kidnapping of Black people out of the country struck fear in those who were still in precarious situations in the control of their former enslavers — without protection from Union troops.
Frederick Douglass’s brother Perry Downs, who was enslaved in Texas, recounted hearing his enslaver say that he would run his “property” out of Texas.
No one knows how many enslaved Black people were driven farther south by enslavers to avoid freeing them. “There were unnamed numbers of Black people taken out of the United States to places where there was still slavery,” Gibbs said.
Slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886. Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888.
To this day, descendants of Confederates who drove enslaved Black people into Brazil celebrate with festivals in the cities of Americana and Santa Bárbara d’Oeste, celebrating “the Confederate States of America” with Confederate flag displays and dances.
In the United States, as communities prepare for Juneteenth celebrations, historians say, revelers should also pause in somber acknowledgment that the hardship of involuntary labor and racial terror against Black people continued long after Granger stood on the courthouse steps in Galveston reading the famous order for long-awaited freedom.
“Juneteenth should be celebrated to recognize the symbolic emancipation of African Americans from slavery” in Texas, Dulaney said. “Let’s celebrate it. But also realize it took much longer and much more than an order from a Union army general to end slavery in this country.”