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On June 19 ("Juneteenth"), 1865, Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order Number 3, which read in part, "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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor." The tidings of freedom reached the approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas gradually as individual plantation owners informed their bondsmen over the months following the end of the war. The news elicited an array of personal celebrations, some of which have been described in The Slave Narratives of Texas (1974). The first broader celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies and to teach freed slaves about their voting rights. Within a short time, however, Juneteenth was marked by festivities throughout the state, some of which were organized by official Juneteenth committees. Slaveholders in Texas had been able to keep the news of Emancipation from their slaves until 1865. There was a period during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s when the celebrations fell out of favor.
New York, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota, Texas and California, as well as a host of other states will hold celebrations. The festivals include a mixture of music, food and gospel. It is a joyous recognition of end of slavery in the states that left the Union.
While the festivals celebrate release from slavery in the South, it should also serve as a time to reflect on the struggles that continue through today. Our forebears were conductors in the Underground Railroad. Black soldiers fought in the Civil War. Some Civil War veterans become buffalo soldiers or cowboys. Dorrie Miller, a Navy cook, manned a machine gun at Pearl Harbor. Blacks formed the famed Tuskegee Airmen. We should reflect on their bravery.
While celebrating the uplifting stories, we must remember that some freed slaves fell victim to another form of slavery that involved jailing black men for merely being unemployed. The jailed men could be "sold" to local farmers, lumber camps and coal mines to pay off their “fines”. Douglas Blackmon detailed the story in Slavery By Another Name (2010). The book was the basis for a PBS documentary earlier this year. Law enforcement as a method of intimidation continues to this day as drug laws are used to incarcerate black men for nonviolent drug crimes. Michelle Alexander documents the history in The New Jim Crow (2010). Law enforcement officials are not viewed as “Officer Friendly” by many in the black community.
Blackmon mentions the impact that the freed slaves had on the creation of public schools and hospitals. The impact of the neglect the general public had on health care issues in the black community is described in a new book Sick From Freedom (2012). The initial result of the ex-slave health crisis care was the creation of "Separate but Equal" hospitals. The health care struggle continues today with many illnesses negatively impacting the black community more than whites.
Hypertension is more prevalent in the black community than in white community. This hypertension prevalence is higher in US blacks in higher than in Nigerians and blacks in Cuba. Interestingly the incidence of hypertension in the black community is similar to the incidence of hypertension in whites in Spain, Germany and England. The research question in the US is often directed at what's wrong with the US blacks rather than why are US whites so different from European whites. Are we geared towards viewing blacks as pathologic?
The Reagan era ushered in the myth of black-on-black crime. The focus became race rather than poverty. Black society and values were considered depraved. The stage was set to incarcerate “dangerous” blacks. Recreational drugs represented the same thing that alcohol, aka "firewater," had been to the Native American. Because black were dangerous, the killings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell by police became just collateral damage. An unarmed teen like Trayvon Martin can be killed and we are supposed to "wonder" if the guy with the gun was attacked by a “crazed” teen. We debate whether a Harvard Professor should have been arrested for being in his own home. The message these events and the incorporation of black-on-black crime sent to the NYPD rank and file was that they would get public backing for any level of "Stop and Frisk". Inventing Black-On-Black Crime (2005) documents the shift to the idea of racial defects rather than economic defects as the cause of crime in the black community.
Michael R Bloomberg, a supposedly moderate mayor in New York City, feels justified in telling black citizens at a gathering at the First Baptist Full Gospel Church of Brownsville (in Brooklyn) that “Stop and Frisk” practices are beneficial and increase safety for “everybody”. Bloomberg says this in the face of data showing that >90% of the stops involve people who have not committed any criminal act. In many stops, small amounts of recreational drugs lead to arrest. The mayor fails to see that his practice decreases the likelihood that people in the minority communities targeted by “Stop and Frisk” will feel comfortable reporting observations of actual comes to the police. The practice has become so uncommon that the ACLU has created a smartphone app so that instances can be immediately recorded.
Melissa Harris-Perry held a panel on June 10th addressing "Stop and Frisk" which included three young black males (video) who have all have been stopped by the police at some point. Two of the young men are headed to college in the fall. The other will enter his senior year in high school. All describe the humiliation and fear that is part and parcel of the stops. None were involved in any criminal activity. Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP notes that since “Stop and Frisk” has been in operation there have been more stops of 18-24 year old black males in the targeted communities, than there are actual black males in those communities. 630k stops were made last year.
While the NYPD continues its frisk practice, voices are being raised in opposition. A Father’s Day rally against “Stop and Frisk” will be held in Harlem on Father’s Day. Al Sharpton will be joined by other activist including the ACLU and LGBT activists. With organizations like the NAACP recognizing the need to be more vocal in supporting Gay rights, we can hope that the support coming from the LGBT community is part of organizing as a unit on some issues, rather than always functioning as separate groups.
In May of this year a federal judge ruled that there was overwhelming evidence that thousands of the stops were illegal. The judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the practice.
We remember with the Juneteenth festivals, but we live in the present and rally against “Stop and Frisk" with the fresh memory of our ancestors. The NYC rally is at 2 PM today and will march from Harlem to Bloomberg's home. The struggle continues.
Here’s wishing you a happy Father’s Day and a pleasant Juneteenth.
Addendum: The New York Times has a story today about the family of the white slaveholders who owned Michelle Obama’s ancestors. This is the kind of unsettling information one comes across when doing Ancestry.com investigations and using new DNA testing techniques.
We acknowledge the past but plan for the future.