The essential, sweeping story of Juneteenth’s integral importance to American history, as told by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Texas native. Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond. All too aware of the stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen that have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State, Gordon-Reed―herself a Texas native and the descendant...
Publisher: Liveright (May 4, 2021) Hardcover: 144 pages ISBN-10: 1631498835 ISBN-13: 978-1631498831 ASIN: B08L6WTZBT
Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers University. She is the author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” and “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.” She lives in New York City.
For Al and Jay
To my surprise some years back, I began to hear people outside of my home state, Texas, talk about, and actually celebrate the holiday “Juneteenth.” June 19, 1865, shortened to “Juneteenth,” was the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, and just over two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Despite the formal surrender, the Confederate army had continued to fight on in Texas until mid-May. It was only after they finally surrendered that Major General Gordon Granger, while at his headquarters in Galveston, prepared General Order Number 3, announcing the end of legalized slavery in the state. The truth is, I confess here, that I was initially annoyed, at least mildly so, when I first heard that others outside of Texas claimed the holiday. But why? After all, it was a positive turn in history, evidence that our country was leaving behind, or attempting to, a barbarous institution that had blighted the lives of millions. Such a thing should be celebrated far and wide.
My twinge of possessiveness grew out of the habit of seeing my home state, and the people who reside there, as special. The things that happened there couldn’t have happened in other places. Non-Texans could never really understand what the events that took place in Texas actually meant. I am certain that I’m not alone in this attitude. From my earliest days, it was drummed into me and, I believe, other young people growing up in Texas at that time, that we inhabited a unique place that we were always supposed to claim, and of which we were always supposed to be proud. I’ve noticed over the years, that it is hard to meet a person from Texas who does not, at some point in the conversation, let you know, either with a drawl or without, that he or she is from the state.
My proprietary attitude about Juneteenth quickly disappeared. Rather than keeping the holiday to ourselves, Texans have been in the forefront of trying to make Juneteenth a national holiday. As I think of it, it’s really a very Texas move to say that something that happened in our state was of enough consequence to the entire nation that it should be celebrated nationwide. It has been offered, as part of the justification, that the end of slavery in Texas was the end of the institution period. That’s not quite true. Granger’s order did not end slavery in the country. That did not happen officially until December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the necessary number of states. But it is significant that Texas was the site of the tail end of the Confederate war effort. As the war had been fought to preserve slavery, celebrating Juneteenth throughout the land is a fitting way to mark the end of that effort.
It also is fitting to think of Texas in relation to the nation for another reason. The state has been described as a bellwether for what the United States will become; the term “Texification” has come into use to describe a process that is, supposedly, of recent origin. The history of Juneteenth, which includes the many years before the events in Galveston and afterward, shows that Texas, more than any state in the Union, has always embodied nearly every major aspect of the story of the United States of America. That fact has been obscured by broad caricatures of the state and its people, caricatures that Texans themselves helped to create and helped make the state seem exotic, almost foreign to the rest of the Union.
The essays that follow do not strive to present a chronological narrative of the place where Juneteenth was born. They are, instead, designed to provide a context for an event that has become increasingly important in the life of the American nation. It’s a look at history through the medium of personal memoir, a Texan’s view of the long road to Juneteenth, the events surrounding the date itself, what happened afterward, and how all of this shaped life in Texas, my family’s life, and my own. My Texas roots go deep—on my mother’s side back to the 1820s, on my father’s side at least to the 1860s. Significantly, my wide-ranging approach to Juneteenth reveals that behind all the broad stereotypes about Texas is a story of Indians, settler colonialists, Hispanic culture in North America, slavery, race, and immigration. It is the American story, told from this most American place.
“This, Then, Is Texas”
Texas, perhaps more than any other state in the Union, lives in the public imagination as a place of extremes. How did it get there? Let’s start with its size. Until Alaska became a part of the United States in 1959, Texas was the largest state in the Union—268,580 square miles; larger than Kenya, almost three times the size of the United Kingdom. This extended land mass created an early basis for the exaggeration and bragging to which residents of the state are prone. As one observer put it, “exaggeration is often considered to be an endemic low-grade infection of most Texans.” Although eclipsed by the nation’s vast forty-ninth state, many Texans still cherish their state’s distinction as the largest of the lower forty-eight. For them, being the “biggest” in terms of size is unquestionably a good thing, and stands for the state’s character, as in “Everything’s big in Texas,” making the place and the people who live there seem larger than life.
Which part of the state, though, and which people matter most? As for the people, the Cowboy, the Rancher, the Oilman—all wearing either ten-gallon hats or Stetsons—dominate as the embodiments of Texas. Of great importance, as I have said in another context, the image of Texas has a gender and a race: “Texas is a White man.” What that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man is part of what I hope to explore in the essays of this book. As for the part of the state that fuels its image, Texas appears in popular culture—movies, songs, television—as part of the West; a setting with cattle kicking up dust in hard dry terrain that when emptied of people gets taken over by tumbleweeds blowing in the wind. While away in college, one of my New England–born and –bred classmates suddenly asked me one day how close I lived to “the desert,” and what that was like. I was taken aback. “Very far,” I answered. Her question caught me off-guard because I had never seriously thought of my home in relationship to the desert, save for the time I came outside one morning to find my mother’s Cutlass Supreme and my father’s Ford pickup truck coated with a thin layer of sand from a particularly fierce West Texas dust storm. That may have been the first—and only time—I thought seriously about my connection to the more westerly part of the state.
Livingston, the town where I was born, in more easterly Polk County, and Conroe, the town where I grew up, fifty miles south in Montgomery County, are part of the Big Thicket; an area covering about 3 million acres in the eastern part of Texas, so named for its dense forests and plant life. The area has been called “North America’s Environmental Ark” for ecological “diversity unparalleled in the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere.” It is estimated that 75 percent of North America’s bird species either live in the Big Thicket or spend some time there during their yearly migrations. Montgomery County also reaches into Texas’s Gulf Coast Region, putting it, not infrequently, in the path of hurricanes. Very much like its direct neighbor to the south, Harris County, where Houston is located, it has an extremely humid, subtropical climate. In other words, nothing about where I grew up had anything to do with a desert. Like a true Texan, measuring value by size, I suggested to my classmate that the next time she happened to see a topographical map of Texas, she take note of the huge area of green—that could swallow up all of New England—with millions of acres of less forested and more desert-like parts of the state left over. Take that!
There is just so much to misunderstand about Texas, misunderstandings that stem from a general lack of attention to, or even awareness of the state’s foundational aspects. Let’s start at the most basic level, with the view I suggested to my classmate: topography. The Balcones Escarpment, a raised limestone fault, roughly bisects Texas, separating east from west. The regions on either side have very different ecologies, histories, and, thus, different cultures. A deep irony is that despite the fact that, for most of the state’s existence, more people have lived to the east of the Escarpment, it is the inhabitants to the west who have shaped, through cowboy lore and Hollywood films, popular understandings about Texas and the people who live there. West Texas is, stereotypically, the home of two of the figures mentioned above: the Cowboy, riding the range, and the Rancher, owner of the land on which the Cowboy worked. Though both have a history that predates the state’s entrance into the American Union in 1845, stretching back into the days when the land was part of New Spain, their images have placed Texas firmly within the American West, with all the tropes, stock characters, and storylines that go with that.
The third figure—the Texas Oilman—of more recent vintage, had his origins in East Texas, but migrated, first to North Texas and then West. The 1956 film Giant , based upon Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name, explored the cultural conflict that spread across the state in the decades after the legendary oil strike in 1901 at Spindletop established Texas as an oil-producing behemoth. The Oilman soon challenged the Cowboy and the Rancher as the archetypical Texan. Spindletop is about seventy-five miles from where I grew up. Significantly, the film is set, not near Spindletop, which gave rise to Texaco and Gulf Oil companies, or the Humble Oil Field (thirty miles from my hometown), from which Exxon partly descends. Instead, Giant was shot in the West Texas town of Marfa, with all the images of Texas—land and people—blended into one portrait. The film’s opening titles include the jaunty “This, Then, Is Texas”—the music without the lyrics:
Just like a sleeping giant
Sprawling in the sun
In one great hand, the Rio Grande
In the other, Galveston
Where oil wells laugh at angels
And buzzards wheel above
This, then, is Texas
Lone Star State of Texas
This, then, is Texas
Land I love
Just see the silver dollars
Falling from above
This, then, is Texas
Lone Star State of Texas
This is the giant
Land I love
Austin to Houston
The Alamo, El Paso
Crystal City, Waco
Giant, giant, giant, giant . . .
The film’s ranch, Reata, is modeled after the famed million-acre King Ranch, whose mineral leases to the company that would become Exxon helped make the company. I first became familiar with that connection when I worked as a summer law associate at Exxon’s headquarters in Houston. Reata is situated on over 800,000 acres of dry and sparsely vegetated land, owned by rancher “Bick” Benedict, played by the lanky Rock Hudson, with an antagonist—the iconic James Dean—as the cowboy-hatted, inarticulate, rope twirling Jett Rink, who would strike oil and become rich overnight. Both men love Leslie Lynnton Benedict, played by the even more iconic Elizabeth Taylor. The conflict between the two White men, wrestling with the natural resources open to people like them—including the prize, Leslie—represent the growing pains of a place that, even today, likes to see itself as a perpetual adolescent on the way to some inevitably bright future.
There is, however, another important figure critically missing from Giant, and other defining depictions of Texas, a figure who helped make Juneteenth necessary: the Slave Plantation Owner. Although this species of Texan no longer exists, the influence of the world he (maintaining the gender convention) put in place continues to this day. He resided mainly in what became the populous east, an area developed by the man known as “the Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin. The Virginia-born and Missouri-raised Austin came to Texas not to create cattle ranches and hire cowboys, but to turn huge swaths of the Mexican province Coahuila y Tejas into a western version of the cotton fields of Mississippi that had produced such great wealth for plantation owners. What is now the southeastern part of Texas was, in many ways, the perfect place to try this: the soil was amazingly fertile, the growing season long, and there was access to the Gulf of Mexico for shipping harvested crops.
For a number of reasons, including the desire to create defenses against Comanche raids, the Mexican government was eager to have Anglo-Americans come to the area and develop it. There was, however, a problem. Antislavery sentiment was strong in the country only recently separated from Spain. As much as they wanted Whites to come to Texas, most Mexicans were not so keen on them bringing chattel slavery with them. Austin knew that posed a threat to his enterprise. A good number of the Americans who would want to settle on land in this area would hardly want to clear and work that land themselves. They expected to have enslaved people do the clearing and planting, and they would hesitate to move to Texas without assurances that their property rights in enslaved people would be preserved. Austin and his Tejano (ethnic Mexicans living in Texas) partners engaged in intense lobbying to convince Mexican legislators to protect slavery as a way of ensuring the success of their colonization effort. Austin told everyone who would listen that, without slavery, the Anglo colonies would never fully succeed and Americans who came to Texas would surely be poor for the rest of their lives.
Although Austin and his supporters eventually succeeded in gaining exemptions that allowed slavery to continue, the situation remained precarious for them so long as they were a part of Mexico. The Mexican government continued to nod toward ending slavery, while the Anglos and their supporters kept resisting. The matter was settled when Texans successfully rebelled against Mexico and set up the Republic of Texas in 1836. With this move, the right to enslave was secured, and White settlers poured into the new republic. Texas as its own country lasted but a decade, all the while beset by poor leadership by some of its presidents, empty coffers after the Panic of 1837, continued conflicts with Mexico, and international pariah status because it was a slaveholder’s republic.
White Texans feared that their new country’s weakness—Mexico remained a potentially formidable foe—made it vulnerable to calls for abolition, which began to grow in the 1830s in the United States and among their trading partners, including Great Britain, which abolished slavery in 1833. The solution, Anglo-Texans believed, was to become annexed to the United States. Indeed, that had been the goal of many Texians (supporters of the break from Mexico) from the start. This happened in 1845, followed by the acceptance of Texas as part of the Union. These moves, controversial because of Texas’s status as a slave society, and President James K. Polk’s provocations led to an even more controversial war with Mexico, which had never accepted Texas’s independence. The United States won the war, and Texas was fully incorporated into the country.
Twenty years after being formally accepted into the American Union, the armed forces of the United States shattered Texas’s dream of a cotton-based slave economy when it defeated Texas and its fellow Confederates in the Civil War. Anglo-Texans had been fighting for what they would have called their “way of life” since the 1820s, and had been confident that their alliance with other Southern states would solidify their position. United States Major General Gordon Granger, two years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two and half months after Lincoln was assassinated, brought the news on June 19, 1865, that the joint effort had not succeeded.
When I was growing up, we took Texas history twice—if I remember correctly, in the fourth and the seventh grades. I cannot say with certainty that slavery was never mentioned. Of course, I didn’t need school to tell me that Blacks had been enslaved in Texas. I heard references to slavery from my parents and grandparents. A common retort when another kid—often a sibling—insisted you do something for them you didn’t want to do was “Slavery time is over.” And we celebrated Juneteenth, which marked the end of the institution. But if slavery was mentioned in the early days of my education, it didn’t figure prominently enough in our lessons to give us a clear and complete picture of the role the institution played in the state’s early development, its days as a Republic, its entry into the Union, and its role in the Civil War and its aftermath. Instead, as with the claim “The American Civil War was not about slavery. It was about states’ rights,” the move when talking about Texas’s rebellion against Mexico was to take similar refuge in concerns about overreaching federal authorities. Anglo-Texans chafed at the centralizing tendencies of the Mexican government and longed to be free. As one could ask about the states’ rights argument—states’ rights to do what?—I don’t recall my teachers giving a complete explanation for why Anglo-Texans felt so threatened by the Mexican government.
History is, to say the least, complicated. There are almost always mixed motives within and among individuals about any of the great issues of the day. Given that two different ethnic groups, with two different languages, were involved in Mexican Texas, it’s not surprising that cultural tensions might develop that could lead to a rift, even though the Mexican government had initially welcomed Anglo immigration. And the Texians were justifiably alarmed by President Santa Anna’s suspension of the Mexican Constitution of 1835 as a move to consolidate power in the central government. But contention over slavery had been present from the moment Stephen Austin, and his father before him, had dreamed of bringing White colonists to a new version of a promised land. Many of the people who heeded Austin’s call came with clenched teeth and balled-up fists, so to speak. They arrived with both insecurity and defiance, knowing that a significant number of people, within Texas and without, viewed their way of life—enslaving people—with abhorrence.
There is no way to get around the fact that, whatever legitimate federalism-based issues were at play, slavery was a central reason Anglo-Texans wanted out of Mexico. Using unpaid labor to clear forests, plant crops, harvest them, and move them to market was the basis of their lives and wealth. As Austin perceptively noted, any individual or family who tried to do this on their own in the wilderness of East Texas would face years of toil and strife without a real prospect of success. Still, nothing is inevitable. Things could have been different. The choice for slavery was deliberate, and that reality is hard to square with a desire to present a pristine and heroic origin story about the settlement of Texas. There is no way to do that without suggesting that the lives of African Americans, and their descendants in Texas, did not, and do not, matter.
It should come as no surprise that my teachers were not inclined to deal with all of this and likely did not know much of this story. They probably were not alone in this regard. As far as my early education went, these aspects of our state history were never fully discussed. When slavery in Texas was mentioned, it was presented as an unfortunate event that was to be acknowledged but quickly passed over. There was no sense of the institution’s centrality. Slavery was done. There was no point in dwelling on the past. Texas was all about the future, about what came next—the next cattle drive, the next oil well, the next space flight directed by NASA’s Mission Control in Houston.
Except, we did dwell on the past. We were exhorted to “Remember the Alamo” and to “Remember Goliad,” famous events in Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico. Why were those things to be remembered, while the history of an important reason Stephen F. Austin came to Texas, and all that flowed from that fateful decision to put slavery at the heart of Texas, to be forgotten? The question is especially important because while legalized slavery ended, the racially based hierarchy it put in place remained, poisoning the well of social relations in Texas over the ensuing decades. Very significantly, this was not just a matter of a Black/White divide. After the successful creation of Texas, White settlers moved to displace the Tejanos, who had originally welcomed the Anglos as potential allies against Native Americans, people who had their own claims to the land. No other state brings together so many disparate and defining characteristics all in one—a state that shares a border with a foreign nation, a state with a long history of disputes between Europeans and an indigenous population and between Anglo-Europeans and people of Spanish origin, a state that had existed as an independent nation, that had plantation-based slavery and legalized Jim Crow.
Any one of these things would leave a mark on a place. Having them all together almost certainly accounts for Texas’s extreme nature, such deep internal complexities creating tensions that roil. All the major currents of American history flow through Texas. As big as it is, that is still a lot for any one state to handle. There is little wonder why the Cowboy would be picked as the most representative figure. Divorced from plantation slavery, coming from a part of the state relatively devoid of Black people, the image of the cowboy on the range quiets the noise a bit and avoids the tragic element in Texas history—the element that Juneteenth supposedly closed the door on, even as it opened another tragic phase in the state and country’s history. As painful as it may be, recognizing—though not dwelling on—tragedy and the role it plays in our individual lives, and in the life of a state or nation, is, I think, a sign of maturity.
As the years have gone by, I’ve had occasion to think more about tragedy and triumph in relationship to Texas, its past, present, and future. It is possible, very likely, actually, that my time there prepared me for the work I do as a historian of the Early American Republic; another moment when triumph and tragedy were inexorably entwined. Disentangling those threads and viewing them critically has been, in fact, a good thing in the context of our national history, broadening our understanding of who we were and who we are now. This same process could do wonders for Texas as well.