Opinion: On Juneteenth, freedom came with strings attached

Last week at a Juneteenth concert on the South Lawn of the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris said that on June 19, 1865, after Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, “The enslaved people of Texas learned they were free.” On that day, she said, “they claimed their freedom.”

With those words, Harris, who stood alongside President Joe Biden when he admirably signed the legislation that made Juneteenth a federal holiday, expressed a common oversimplification, one born of our tendency to conjugate history’s complexities: Although it’s a mark of progress to commemorate the end of American slavery, it’s imperative that we continue to underscore the myriad ways in which Black freedom was restricted long after that first Juneteenth.

To start, there is some debate over whether most of the estimated 250,000 enslaved people in Texas at the time didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation. As famed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. told me when we spoke recently, “I have never met a scholar who believes that’s true.”

But more important, emancipation was not true freedom — not in Texas and not in most of the American South, where the vast majority of Black people lived. It was quasi freedom. It was an ostensible freedom. It was freedom with more strings attached than a marionette.

Most Black people couldn’t claim their freedom on June 19, 1865, because their bodies (and their free will) were still being policed to nearly the same degree and with the same inveterate racism that Southern whites had aimed at them during slavery.

The laws governing the formerly enslaved “were very restrictive in terms of where they could go, what kind of jobs they could have, where they could live in certain communities,” said Daina Ramey Berry, the dean of humanities and fine arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.”

As the Rediscovering Black History blog at the National Archives notes, “Most white Texans desired to keep Blacks as close to their formerly enslaved status as possible; therefore, they fiercely resisted any actions that would potentially elevate Blacks to a competitive social, political and economic status.” This was true throughout much of the former Confederacy.

And it was explicit. Upon arrival in Galveston, Union General Gordon Granger delivered General Order No. 3, which said “the connection heretofore existing” between “former masters and slaves” would become “that between employer and hired labor” and that “freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

The order also had a curious stipulation: that freedmen would “not be supported in idleness.”

It would of course be completely understandable if, after being forced to work entirely for another’s gain for your whole life, the exercise of freedom that you might choose first would be a respite, and beyond that, you might decide who in your family should work outside the home and who in it. But that agency was largely denied to Black people.

A notice from Granger published days later in The Galveston Daily News informed the public that “no persons formerly slaves will be permitted to travel on the public thoroughfares without passes or permits from their employers.” In other words, white people would still dictate where Black people could be.

The notice went on to say that “idleness is sure to be productive of vice, and humanity dictates that employment be furnished these people, while the interest of the commonwealth imperatively demands it, in order that the present crop may be secured.”

In 1866, a Texas state constitutional convention adopted the state’s Black Codes, codifying suffocating limits on Black autonomy. As the Texas State Library and Archives Commission describes these laws:

“African Americans without jobs often were assigned to white guardians for work without pay. The penalty for quitting often included imprisonment for breach of contract. Other laws prevented freedmen from having free access to public facilities. Stiff fines were levied against African Americans for violating curfews, possessing firearms or displaying objectionable public behavior (harsh speeches or insulting gestures). They were not allowed to testify against whites, serve on juries or in state militias, or to vote.”

In this way, the codes “outlined a status for African Americans not too much removed from their earlier condition as slaves.”

Beyond this, for Black people in the 1870s, being a convict in Texas essentially meant relegation to enslavement, because that was when the state’s convict leasing program took off.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” an exception Southern states and businesses exploited, making routine the practice of leasing convicts — usually Black convicts — out as unpaid labor, generating tremendous profits in the process.

As Douglas Blackmon writes in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Slavery by Another Name,” his marvelous, devastating book about the system of convict leasing: “The concept of reintroducing the forced labor of Blacks as a means of funding government services was viewed by whites as an inherently practical method of eliminating the cost of building prisons and returning Blacks to their appropriate position in society.”

And this labor was often brutal. Whereas enslavers had perverse financial incentives to keep the enslaved alive and relatively healthy — to them, the enslaved were assets to be sold, passed down and borrowed against — those who exploited convicts for their labor had no such incentives.

The question of labor is at the core of how we must understand emancipation and Reconstruction because American slavery, an entire capitalist system representing billions of dollars in wealth, had been built on free Black labor, was brought to its knees and would have to be propped up; newly freed Black people were fed back to the machine to keep it running.

Some vestiges of the convict leasing system remain in place to this day, as convicts continue to be forced to perform free or extremely low-paying labor to produce a wide range of products, some of which you might have in your home now.

As an investigative report by The Associated Press published in January found: “The goods these prisoners produce wind up in the supply chains of a dizzying array of products found in most American kitchens, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice.”

Yes, some of the constraints placed on Black Americans during the emancipation and Reconstruction eras were addressed by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, known as the Reconstruction Amendments. But not all of them.

Perhaps the best way to consider Juneteenth is not as the moment Black people attained freedom but as a moment in the long-running struggle to realize freedom. When slavery is replaced by a succession of systems — Black Codes, Jim Crow, mass incarceration — that, though diminished in their brutality, oppress on the same principles, a true, comprehensive freedom still eludes.

As Corey Walker, the director of the program in African American studies at Wake Forest University, emphasizes, the idea of freedom, particularly for Black people in this country, is continuously being negotiated and contested, so “Juneteenth marks a moment in the ever-evolving and expanding project of American democracy.”

“It is,” he said, “a project that is never complete. It is never fulfilled, even at the moment of Juneteenth. And it’s one that is ever evolving to this day.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.