Juneteenth is the day we celebrate the emancipation of Black people in Texas. However, the story of freedom for Black people in America is more complicated than a single day in June. Black people’s freedom has always been directly tied to place — and contingent upon where they live.
The dates when enslaved people were emancipated vary among the states, exemplifying this close connection between place and freedom for Black people. Outside the South, a few New England States — Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York — moved to outlaw slavery before President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862.
By contrast, most of the Southern states refused to adhere to Lincoln’s orders and forced Black people to remain enslaved beyond the proclamation. Some rural parts of the South kept Black people enslaved — even well beyond ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Consequently, the actual date when a formerly enslaved person could exercise their freedom varied throughout the country.
Celebrating freedom in America
Before the contemporary Juneteenth commemorations, celebrations of freedom varied across the United States. Black people in Washington, D.C. celebrate their Emancipation Day as April 16, 1862. Other emancipation dates follow the path of Union soldiers — for Charleston, S.C., that was February 1865; in Tallahassee, it was May 20, 1865. Ohioans celebrated the anniversary of emancipation in the West Indies on Aug. 1, 1834.
In many Black communities, Black churches hold Watch Night celebrations in the late-night transition from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 to mark the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was set to take effect. The first “Emancipation Day” or “Jubilee Day” celebrations, what would become known as Juneteenth, occurred in 1866, one year after the reading of General Order No. 3 in Galveston. In celebrating Juneteenth on June 19, we commemorate that day in 1865 when Union soldiers asserted freedom from the former Confederate headquarters in Texas.
What does freedom look like?
The abolition of slavery in the North was often gradual, halfhearted, self-serving or otherwise not intended to provide true freedom to formerly enslaved Black people. In the years after the abolition of slavery, Southern legislatures passed Black codes that codified criminalization of behaviors thought to be associated with Black people, thereby creating a system of incarceration and enslavement that persists to this day. Throughout the entire country, states passed laws prohibiting free Black people from owning land or having employment. Even after the 13th Amendment, Black people were not treated in a manner consistent with freedom.
The relationship between place and freedom continued after the period of enslavement, as Black people set out to create new lives as free people and citizens. They sought to have their own land and community in the Kansas Fever Movement and Exoduster Movement of 1879. More than 6 million Black people left the South during the Great Migration, looking for jobs, opportunity and freedom from oppression. A Return Migration has been underway since 1970, after the civil rights movement, changes in Northern economies — and people’s hopes that the South might be different.
Black people have been finding challenges in each of these places. In the urban North, discrimination against Black people existed in different forms. They may be able to own property, but only in designated Black neighborhoods. They could run for office but may have to do so from a separate Black “political club” or “submachine,” created by White party leaders so that they did not have to fully engage Black citizens. Keneshia Grant’s book describes some of the challenges Black people faced while trying to participate in Northern politics.
For Black Americans, freedom is tied to location
For Black people, location and freedom are as closely connected as ever because freedom still varies from place to place. Regional issues are persistent. Southern legislatures are working overtime to eliminate the burgeoning political power of participants in the Return Migration through legislation that makes it increasingly difficult to participate in the electoral process.
These days, we must also look past the region or state where a person lives to think about how place influences their freedom. For example, there are significant differences in the quality of services available to urban, suburban and rural communities that manifest in many aspects of daily life, including access to jobs or health care. The tensions created by gentrification and displacement also shape what it means to be free in local communities across the United States. The types of interactions individuals have with policing or education systems vary, in large part, on the racial and economic makeup of their community. In short, whether gentrification helps or harms Black people depends on where they are in the nation.
In the years ahead, American society has considerable work to do to make it the case that one’s freedom is less connected to one’s location in the country. That might take political action and societal changes that actually make people free, and moves beyond a holiday that celebrates freedom.
Keneshia N. Grant is an associate professor of political science at Howard University and author of the W.E.B. Du Bois Book Award-winning book, “The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century” (Temple University Press, 2020). Find her on Twitter @KeneshiaGrant.
Sheena Harris is an associate professor of history at Tuskegee University and author of “Margaret Murray Washington: The Life and Times of a Career Clubwoman” (University of Tennessee Press, 2021).