Today is Juneteenth; the day slaves were freed in Texas. Although I live in Georgia, I am very familiar with this holiday because I am a native of the Lone Star State. I grew up hearing the story of how slaves were notified they were free two years after the fact. Each year there would be all kinds of activities, news stories and of course family barbecues at home or at the local park. It was and still is a time of celebration in the African American community. But since I have been living in Georgia for several years, I have not participated in the observation. Now with the recent conversations and protests around racism in this country and abroad, the idea of Juneteenth becoming an official national holiday has risen again.
Juneteenth not only marked the end of slavery in Texas but also in the United States. Here is the story from History.com. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War was over and slavery in the United States has ended. Despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, a lack of Union troops in the confederate state of Texas made the order difficult to enforce. Some historians believe the lapse in time on poor communication in that era especially during and after war time. Others believe slave owners intentionally withheld the information to keep slaves working as long as possible.
Major Gen. Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3: “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 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.”
On that day, 250,000 enslaved people were freed, and despite the message to stay and work for their owners, many left the state immediately and headed north or to nearby states in search of family members they’d been ripped apart from. For many African Americans, June 19 is considered an Independence Day. Forty-seven states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, but efforts to make it a national holiday have so far stalled in Congress. Many corporations like Twitter, Nike, Target, Harvard and the National Football League have made Juneteenth a company holiday with paid time off.
As I reflect on Juneteenth, I think about what happened to the disabled slaves? I have often wondered about slaves with disabilities in general. How they managed on the plantation. Since the existence of a slave is the ability to work and be abled bodied how does that actually look for a person who has limited abilities and functioning? As I have been and continue to do research, I have struggled to find a lot on the topic. I read the books on Blind Tom and wrote about it in a previous post. He was a famous musician that was never emancipated. But when he was born his master wanted to get rid of him. It was his mother who begged for his life. Later he discovered the piano and the rest is history. The intersectionality of slavery, labor and disability is something I find very interesting. Even to this day we value a human being based on his or her ability to produce. If you are not able to work and produce something of value you are not worth very much. The unemployment rate is sky high right now because of the pandemic but the unemployment rate in the disability community has also been high and even worse for disabled African Americans. This has been the case for decades and many don’t blink an eye. The assumption is that disabled people can’t produce and therefore are not very valuable.
The life of the disabled slave has got me wanting to learn more. In my research I have found one book so far at one of my favorite libraries, Bookshare. The book is titled, African American Slavery and Disability: Bodies, Property, and Power in the Antebellum South, 1800–1860 by Dea H. Boster. The summary says that, disability is often mentioned in discussions of slave health, mistreatment and abuse, but constructs of how “able’ and “disabled” bodies influenced the institution of slavery has gone largely overlooked. This volume uncovers a history of disability in African American slavery from the primary record, analyzing how concepts of race, disability, and power converged in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. I am looking forward to reading this book and learning more about this somewhat unknown part of America’s history.