As U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger neatly scripted General Order No. 3 into his logbook on June 19, 1865, the nation was still mourning the death of President Abraham Lincoln and looking for ways to reunite the country at the conclusion of the Civil War.
Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in September 1862, and every southern state eventually accepted the executive order, except this last one — Texas.
It would become known as Juneteenth — a shortened form of the date that would become the most significant moment in America’s dark chapter on slavery, second only to Lincoln’s proclamation.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger wrote, from a villa in Galveston. “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.”
But this is where it gets tricky. Slaves weren’t allowed to drop their tools and walk away. Instead, they were required to remain exactly where they were — their slave master now their employer.
“The freedmen are advised to remain quietly 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.”
It practically makes the term “freedman” ironic, because the only thing it seemed to free thousands of men, women and children to do was get some form of compensation for the work they’ve been doing all along, whether they wanted to continue doing that work or not.
It’s like walking into a prison and telling those incarcerated they’re now free to go anywhere they want, as long as it’s within the confines of the prison block.
This would become an all-too-common refrain in history. Minorities finally achieve some semblance of equality, but at a high price or with steep conditions.
Want to vote? Sure. But pass this literacy test first. Want to go to school to learn to read and write? Sure. But not with white kids. Want to work? Sure. But only if someone is willing to hire someone of your race.
If that wasn’t bad enough, their very lives — their very existence — wasn’t just undervalued. It wasn’t valued at all. We shrugged through Jim Crow, the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and the killings — from the arrival of the first slave ship, to the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, to the police-involved killings of today.
And we’re surprised people are angry? How? The only thing that would be surprising after all this history is if people weren’t angry.
That doesn’t justify the riots and the looting. But those are separate from the peaceful protests that brought millions to the streets of their cities and towns — not just across the nation, but across the world.
It’s indeed creating change. Reform and outright revamping of law enforcement. Destruction of some of the remaining glorifications of the Civil War’s losers. Even rebranding products that should have never included such racist elements in the first place, like Aunt Jemima, and brands derogatory to other minority groups, like Dreyer’s Eskimo Pie.
The Associated Press, whose writing style is the backbone of many newspaper outlets, including this one, has finally agreed to capitalize “Black” and “Indigenous” when talking race.
While this is a nice start, it is just a nice start. There is a reckoning on society — and it’s some 400 years overdue. There’s no easy way past it, except to face it, accept it, and just change.
Change our way of thinking. Change our perceptions. Change how we treat others who are different from us.
“We pass the laws that will remedy the injustices,” one-time New York Sen. Bobby Kennedy once said. “That’s what those of us in Washington should do. We shouldn’t just deplore the violence, deplore the lawlessness. We should pass the laws that remedy what people riot about.”
Yes, Black lives matter. That’s not excluding any other lives, but is simply pointing out that it seems for too many, Black lives are just not equal.
Not anymore. We can’t accept it anymore. And we won’t accept it anymore.