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Beyond Juneteenth: Twentieth Century Slavery
A Conversation With Antoinette Harrell
Today is the day after Juneteenth, commemorating the date in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the enslaved people there were now free. General Gordon Granger proclaimed:
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.
A lot of Americans think that Granger was there to inform enslaved people that they were now free. But these people already knew that they they had been freed by federal dictum. Granger’s message was not intended for them. It was intended for their enslavers. As Robin Washington notes in an article published in Forward last year:
If Galveston’s Blacks already knew they were free, obviously their slaveholders did, too — yet nonetheless kept them in bondage, not by cunning or deceit or ignorance, but by the brute force and tactics of dehumanizing torture they had been using for 200 years.
It is all-too-easy to imagine that June 19, 1865 marked the end of racialized slavery in the United States. But this is very far from the truth. As soon as federal troops withdrew from the former confederate states, White Americans revved up the project of re-enslaving Black Americans. Counting from 1865, the new slavery persisted for more than a century. Although very many have now passed away, there are African Americans alive today who were enslaved.
Nobody has done more to bring this history to light than Antoinette Harrell, who has pursued the hideous truth for three decades. Part of what makes her work so unique—and so precious—is the fact that she does not only pursue records contained in publicly accessible archives, but has also rummaged through documents hidden away in Southern attics, and most importantly, collected oral histories, including the testimony of African Americans who were enslaved on remote plantations during the second half of the twentieth century, sometimes working for years to earn the trust of her informants.
Juneteenth is a wonderful holiday, but it should not delude anyone into thinking that it marked the end of American slavery. Rather, it was the beginning of a much longer struggle, both in the United States, and worldwide, where an estimated 49.6 million people are enslaved, or live in slavery-like conditions.