Press-Republican

Guest Column

June 5, 2013

Origins of Juneteenth celebration

If you want to understand that oddly named holiday known as Juneteenth, you must first understand the Emancipation Proclamation.

On Jan. 1, 1863, the day that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, only some 200,000 of the estimated 4 million slaves on American soil were freed.

Contrary to what many believe, the proclamation did not free all of the African slaves within the United States but only those in the 11 states that seceded from the Union and were unwilling to return.

In September of the preceding year, President Lincoln decreed that unless the Confederate states returned to the Union by the first of January all slaves within their borders would be freed. In other words, if they returned to the Union they could keep their slaves; but no Confederate state accepted the offer.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, its exact wording was: “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, henceforward, and forever free.”

The proclamation itself was not designed as an act of kindness but rather a weapon to be used against our enemies. Since the economy of the 11 rogue states was largely dependent on forced labor, they were willing to do almost anything to legally retain the practice. 

The Emancipation Proclamation also encouraged newly freed slaves to escape from their plantations and join the Union Armies. While their sympathies were clearly with the secessionist states, slave-holding states Kentucky, Missouri. Maryland and Delaware negotiated their grievances with the Union and therefore were permitted to retain their slaves.

As one might imagine, there was enormous confusion among the slaves themselves as there might be among folks reading this story.

The bad guys (the Confederates) lost their slaves, but the good guys (the United States) were permitted to continue to practice slavery. What an odd reward for loyalty.

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