Library Of Congress: The Birth Of Juneteenth, Voices Of The Enslaved

June 19, 2020

On June 19, 1865, Logan Stroud, one of the largest slave-owners in east Texas, walked to the front porch of his plantation home, which he called Pleasant Retreat.

More than 150 of his enslaved workers gathered around to listen.

He pulled out a dispatch from U.S. Maj. Gen Gorden Granger — General Order Number 3 — issued that very morning in Galveston from the Union Army’s Texas headquarters. The Confederacy had officially surrendered in April, but the last holdouts in Texas had fought on until they, too, were defeated. Now that the war was settled, President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would become the law of the land, even in the Lone Star State.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free,’ ” Stroud began, reading the opening line of Granger’s order. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…”

Stroud’s family had come to Texas when he was just a boy. They built an empire of more than 11,000 acres — cotton, cattle, corn, wheat, pigs, sheep — and grew wealthy on slave labor. Now he was 51 and all that was over.

Stroud began to weep.

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One of his daughters had to take over the reading. “…the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor….”

The details of the day were partly recorded by the Limestone County Historical Commission. And so it was that the Stroud front porch became one of the birthplaces of Juneteenth — when the final group of enslaved people in the United States were informed of the end of the Civil War, of slavery and of the brutal bondage that had defined their lives.

The Library has a photograph and architectural drawings of the house, both made in 1942 by the Historic American Buildings Survey. It’s antebellum prosperity long gone, the one-story, wood-frame house looms up out of the flat landscape like an abandoned, Greek-Revival testament to Southern Gothic, a Faulknerian mansion brought to life.

It’s one of the thousands of documents, recordings and photographs in the Library’s collections that document Juneteenth and the aftermath of slavery by the people who endured it. The Historic Buildings survey also documents the origins of Emancipation Park in Houston, where some of the first and largest Juneteenth celebrations were held. From the survey: “The first description of the park grounds comes from elderly former residents, who describe the park at the turn of the century as being enclosed by a six-foot-high privacy fence and encircled by a racetrack, with the remainder of the property containing two dance floors, a stable, and a beer tavern.”

The most extensive collection of stories is in ”Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.” It contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts and more than 500 black-and-white portraits of formerly enslaved people.

Some of the most haunting aspects of the stories are the matter-of-fact nature in which they’re related, both in interview transcripts and in recordings. Through the crackles and hisses of a 1940 recording in Jasper, Texas, the voice of Billy McCrea shines through, narrating his youth “way back in slavery time.”

“Right at the creek there, they take them (runaways) and put them on…a log, lay them down and fasten the and whup them,” McCrea tells interviewer Ruby Lomax. “You hear them (runaways) hollering and praying on them logs….Now I see all of that when I was a boy.”

McCrae’s memories are in “Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories,” a collection in the American Folklife Center. These 23 interviews were recorded between 1932 and 1975, and offer fascinating glimpses into a world gone by. (Note before listening: Speakers often recount racial epithets used to describe black people. Also, in an inadvertent window into racial attitudes during the time of the recordings, the interviewers often address their subjects as “uncle.”)

Baltimore’s Fountain Hughes was a remarkably clear-voiced 101-year-old when he was interviewed in 1949. He was a teenager when the Civil War ended. He remembered it well.

“We were slaves,” he says of his youth in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We belonged to people. They’d sell us like they sell horses and cows and hogs and all like that. Have a auction bench, and they’d put you on, up on the bench and bid on you just same as you bidding on cattle, you know…selling women, selling men.”

After the war ended, he said, “We was just turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in a pasture? Well, after freedom, you know, colored people didn’t have nothing.”

This, then, is what was coming to an end on June 19, 1865, on that front porch in Limestone County, Texas. The end of an era and the beginning of the celebrations of Juneteenth reports the source.

The new era, though, was not a clean break from the past, not even more than a century later. In 1981, a few black teenagers were celebrating Juneteenth on a small boat in a Limestone County lake. The police came out to arrest them on charges of having a small amount of marijuana. While trying to ferry them to shore, the boat capsized. Three teens drowned. The New York Times reported the results of the subsequent trial on page 30 of the A section, under a roundup of news items headed, “Around the Nation.”

The lead sentence:

“An all-white jury today acquitted three former Limestone County officers in the drownings of three black teenagers who were in custody when a boat capsized on a Texas lake.”

That, too, is a story from Limestone County that resonates on Juneteenth 2020.

Photo credit: 1) On Saturday, June 19, 1865, in Limestone County, Texas, plantation owner Logan Stroud stood on the front porch of this house to tell more than 150 of his enslaved workers that they were free. Photo: Historic American Building Survey. Prints and Photographs Division. 2) Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger. Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. Prints and Photographs Division. 3) A portion of a handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, with the famous phrase “shall be then, thence forward, and forever free.” Rare Book And Special Collections Division. 4) Billy McCrae grew up in slavery in Texas. Photo: Ruby T. Lomax. Prints and Photographs Division.

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