In 1619, 20 slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. They were the first slaves imported into Britain’s North American colonies and were likely freed after a fixed period of service like indentured servants.
In 1640, John Punch, a runaway black servant, was sentenced to servitude for life. Punch is known as the first “official” slave.
In 1860, the November election of President Abraham Lincoln was on a platform opposed to the expansion of slavery into western territories.
April 12, 1861 is documented as the start of the American Civil War; Lincoln’s refusal to remove the Union soldiers from the South led to the Confederates attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The common reason is the moral issue of slavery.
In a speech known as the Cornerstone Address, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens stated, “Upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It was formally issued on January 1, 1863, declaring all enslaved persons free in the Confederate states of America in the rebellion, but not those in the Union. Areas covered by the Emancipation Proclamation are in red. The slave holding areas not covered are in blue.
For me, hearing the words Emancipation Proclamation raises the question,
“What is emancipation and why that word?”
President Lincoln used that word specifically because of the meaning and purpose for what the proclamation was doing for slaves. To emancipate is to liberate from servitude or bondage, or to set free from controls.
Did it do that? It did release us (slaves) from bondage, but not from the controls. As of 2020, it has been 157 years since the emancipation of slaves, 401 years since the first known slaves arrived in North America, and yet we still struggle for full equality and equity.
Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865 and the arrival of General Grangers regiment, the forces were strong enough to give the General order No. 3, on June 19, 1865.
“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 connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired hand.”
The celebration was called Juneteenth and has also been referred to as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Cel-Liberation Day.
Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, created the original Juneteenth flag design, which was first displayed in 2000 at Roxbury Heritage State Park in Boston, Massachusetts. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag, symbolizing that the enslaved were Americans as well as their descendants. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas. The bursting new star on the horizon of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people. In 2007, L.J. Graf updated the current design with the emblazoned historic date of June 19, 1865.
In the 1870s, former enslaved people purchased 10 acres of land for $800.00 and named it Emancipation Park. In 1980, Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday. Juneteenth is now recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 47 of the 50 U.S. states.
A total of 4 million slaves were finally free, 250,000 from Texas alone. After the war, Confederate states were readmitted to the Union after each ratified the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery on December 5, 1865. Future amendments included the ratification of the 14th Amendment on July 9. Equal protection under the law was offered in 1868 and the 15th Amendment in 1870 gave African Americans the right to vote. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, followed by the Voting rights act of 1965.
By: Cynthia Bailey, GRPM Volunteer
Cynthia Bailey is a volunteer at the Grand Rapids Public Museum as a discovery cart volunteer and educator for the Museum’s Newcomers exhibit. This past year, she was honored to be a part of the GRPM’s Changing America exhibit, while also serving as a member of the West Michigan Genealogy Society, and has written a few articles for their Michigan Magazine, is an active member of Toastmasters International and has earned their highest Achievement Award of Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM). Cynthia has been a Dominican Associate since 2017.
Cynthia is also a Public Speaker, has given presentations for Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Serra International, Grand Rapids Public Library and Grand Rapids Knights of the Round Table to name a few of her engagements.