June 19th, or 'Juneteenth,' is a holiday commemorating the final end of slavery in the United States. Professor Barbara Krauthamer, a leading historian of African American slavery and emancipation, talks us through its significance down the decades and which books to read to get a better understanding of what it's all about.
Juneteenth is our topic. Beginning with the basics, for our international audience, what is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a celebration in African American communities, widely recognized since the end of the Civil War, marking the day, June 19th, when the Union Army arrived in Texas and announced that the Confederacy was defeated and slavery had been abolished.
We’re discussing five books which shed light on Juneteenth; let’s begin with Mitch Kachun’s Festivals of Freedom.
Festivals of Freedom is a lovely book, long in sweep and broad in geographic scope. Katchun looks at the different freedom celebrations that African Americans created and maintained through the nineteenth century. He goes back to the early 1800s to look at African Americans’ celebrations to commemorate the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the end of slavery in the Caribbean colonies in the 1830s. African Americans in the Northern United States marked this Caribbean Emancipation Day as a holiday here. This shows us that many African Americans in the 1830s were well informed about international issues affecting people of African descent. They were following the anti-slavery campaigns in England, for example, and understood the interconnectedness of their experience and the experiences of people who were enslaved in Jamaica, in Barbados and throughout the British Empire. So Katchun shows us that African Americans understood their place in a world, not just in the United States.
“The Fourth of July is a day when we celebrate American independence, but Juneteenth seems like a more fitting day to celebrate American freedom”
He then studied freedom celebrations over time, through the end of the Civil War and up until they were folded into Juneteenth celebrations after the Civil War. It’s a detailed and beautifully written account of how communities came together to celebrate and commemorate, with public oration about freedom, citizenship, civil rights and social justice. And Katchun shows how Juneteenth engendered empowerment, community cohesion and political engagement.
Many people only think about the South when they think about the post-Civil War period, but Katchun shows that African American communities all over the United States were engaged in creating and sustaining these freedom celebrations. African American communities in the North, the Midwest and on the Pacific Coast were really invested in creating markers of Black freedom and supporting struggles for equality.
How did Juneteenth celebration customs develop?
Past and present Juneteenth celebrations were all based in a recognition of African American history and Black accomplishments. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Black communities, who were barred from accessing public parks and town greens, pooled their resources to purchase land for Juneteenth celebrations. These community-based endeavors created a legacy for future generations, space they would inherit on which they could assemble for political and intellectual engagement.
Juneteenth celebrations were also fun. People had cookouts and music and parades, showcasing Black artistic talent, community, creativity, culture and beauty.
Turning toward a book you put together with photographic historian Deborah Willis. Please tell us about Envisioning Emancipation.
We created Envisioning Emancipation in an effort to answer a question: What does freedom look like? We wanted to create a visual history, composed of historical photographs—photographs of enslaved people, of abolitionists and of the emancipated—to see how people represented themselves. Our focus was, how did Black people represent themselves as spouses, as parents, as siblings and as members of communities?
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We assembled about 175 or so photographs; some of the earliest known photographs of African Americans that were made in this country from the 1850s on. I think our last image was from 1963, of a man who had been born into slavery. We wanted a generational history of Black life. We include pictures of Juneteenth celebrations—gorgeous groups of communities, children, old people dressed in beautiful attire to both acknowledge their history and assert themselves as citizens determined to claim their rights as free people.
“Let a hardhearted Hunker look at it and be softened.” You begin your first chapter with this quote from a letter, written by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, that accompanied a photograph of an emancipated child. Abolitionists softened hearts with persuasive images and speech. Were Juneteenth commemorations also oriented, in part, toward eroding racism?
My sense is, not so much. Juneteenth commemorations were celebrations by and for Black communities, affirming their history as a fundamental part of United States history and affirming Black people’s sense of citizenship in our country too. That had a very strong resonance for people who traced their ancestry back to enslaved people.
Closer to Freedom by Stephanie Camp is your next recommendation.
This is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s a history of enslaved women’s efforts to escape some of the harsher and more violent moments of their enslavement. It traces enslaved women’s lives in the deep South from the antebellum period through the Civil War. Stephanie Camp looks at the different ways they resisted violence and dehumanization. They resisted physically by escaping.
And sometimes they resisted by turning inward and drawing on their personal strength and dignity. For example, she writes about how enslaved women used their creativity to adorn the basic, bare clothing they were given and add adornments, scraps fashioned into beautiful decorations. These are women who saw themselves as women with worth, individuality and attributes that they wanted to showcase. She directs the reader to think about enslaved women as they thought about themselves. She shows how enslaved women’s sense of self enabled them to resist the violent dehumanization of slavery.
Civil War historian Drew Faust wrote, “the Emancipation Proclamation did not bring freedom to the four million African-Americans who lived in slavery in 1863. Instead, blacks had to claim and define that freedom in tens of thousands of acts of self-assertion.” Does Camp’s work support this assertion?
Absolutely. All of the books that I picked for this list focus on enslaved people’s actions to gain freedom and to make freedom meaningful. In some ways, freedom is an empty term which gains meaning through laws and customs, but also through individual free people’s ideas, beliefs and behavior.
Onto To ‘Joy My Freedom, a prize-winning work by Princeton historian Tera Hunter.
This magnificent book blazed a path for many scholars. To ‘Joy My Freedom looks at a group of women who worked in white homes, cleaning and doing the laundry during the post-emancipation period; a group of Black women who were typically overlooked as laborers and as women.
“People had cookouts and music and parades, showcasing Black artistic talent, community, creativity, culture and beauty”
Tera Hunter shows how these women developed strategies to control their own lives and organize for fair wages. They insisted on taking laundry into their own homes, rather than working in the household of their white employers, which allowed them to take care of their own children, work collectively and protect themselves from abuses that black women who worked in white homes were often forced to endure. Further, she explains how Black women created opportunities for amusement with each other and opportunities to socialize with men.
Was economic self-sufficiency part of the definition of freedom for post-Civil War, African American women?
It’s tricky. On the one hand, post-emancipation Black women were still expected to work for wages, primarily in service to white employers, through agricultural or domestic labor, while white women of a certain class were expected to be dependent on their husbands. Black women were not fully recognized by white people as women because they were put into a class of laborers. To ‘Joy My Freedom looks at how these women redefined themselves as women and as workers. And how they made their freedom meaningful through self-assertion.
Finally, hot off the presses, A Black Women’s History of the United States by UT Austin’s Daina Berry and Rutgers’s Kali Gross.
This is a history of the United States told through the stories of Black women by two leading historians. Daina Berry and Kali Gross take the usual model of history conveyed through the stories of great men and turn it on its head. They’re looking at how Black women shaped and were shaped by the politics, the economics and the social dynamics of each era in American history. They illuminate issues and people that are often overlooked and demonstrate that Black women’s history is central to U.S. history. You can’t fully understand the history of the United States if you don’t understand where Black women have historically fit into United States law, economics, politics, culture, and social life.
Do you have hopes that Juneteenth will be commemorated in the 21st century in a way that also makes clear how the story of Black lives mattered throughout U.S. history?
Sure. I do.
I was considering recommending Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. I’d been thinking about the speech so much in the context of Juneteenth, and the President’s decision to schedule a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a site of a racial massacre, on Juneteenth; a speech he subsequently pushed to the next day. Juneteenth puts center stage the history of slavery and Black people’s presence in the United States, from the colonial Era through today in a way that other holidays don’t. Frederick Douglass echoes in my mind because he pointed out that the Fourth of July sidesteps the history of slavery and the history of a whole array of American people.
My great hope is that Juneteenth will one day stand on an equal footing with the Fourth, as a day when we can engage in conversations about what freedom and citizenship truly mean. The Fourth of July is a day when we celebrate American independence, but Juneteenth seems like a more fitting day to celebrate American freedom.
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