Juneteenth and 21st Century Slavery, a personal essay
"From day-dawn till dark, under the constant eye of a master, the same dreary, monotonous, unchanging toil..."
Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the effective end of slavery in the United States, is fast approaching this weekend. It is now a federal holiday, and amidst parties for Father’s Day on the 19th, one should take more than a moment to reflect on this important date.
In June 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with 2,000 federal soldiers. Throughout the city, he had General Order, No. 3 read out to its citizens: “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.”
No doubt, this was only a beginning, signifying step toward the freedom—and equality—of black Americans in the United States. The struggle continues today, step by faltering step, and there are better, more apt modern writers to illuminate all that this means.
Since this newsletter aims to profile people and their work, I thought it a worthy endeavor to look back at slave narratives, and the descriptions of labor forced by the lash. Here are excerpts from three well-known narratives, one not. Thanks to the Works Progress Administration sending out interviewers from 1936-38 to speak with former slaves, we have over 2,300 individual recollections (available here from the Library of Congress) of this time. It is remarkable how similar they are to the below—and evidence of how systemized slavery had become in America.
1. Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, written by himself.
“Old and young, male and female, married and single, dropped down upon the common clay floor, each covering up with his or her blanket, their only protection from cold or exposure. The night, however, was shortened at both ends. The slaves worked often as long as they could see, and were late in cooking and mending for the coming day, and at the first gray streak of the morning they were summoned to the field by the overseer's horn. They were whipped for over-sleeping more than for any other fault. Neither age nor sex found any favor. The overseer stood at the quarter door, armed with stick and whip, ready to deal heavy blows upon any who might be a little behind time. When the horn was blown there was a rush for the door, for the hindermost one was sure to get a blow from the overseer. Young mothers who worked in the field were allowed an hour about ten o'clock in the morning to go home to nurse their children . This was when they were not required to take them to the field with them, and leave them upon “turning row " or in the corner of the fences. As a general rule the slaves did not come to their quarters to take their meals, but took their ashcake (called thus because baked in the ashes) and piece of pork, or their salt herrings, where they were at work.”
2. Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, Mr. Caulkins
The slaves are obliged to work from daylight till dark, as long as they can see. When they have tasks assigned, which is often the case, a few of the strongest and most expert, sometimes finish them before sunset; others will be obliged to work till eight or nine o'clock in the evening. All must finish their tasks or take a flogging. The whip and gun, or pistol, are companions of the overseer; the former he uses very frequently upon the negroes, during their hours of labor, without regard to age or sex. Scarcely a day passed while I was on the plantation, in which some of the slaves were not whipped ; I do not mean that they were struck a few blows merely, but had a set flogging. The same labor is commonly assigned to men and women—such as digging ditches in the rice marshes, clearing up land, chopping cord-wood, threshing, etc. I have known the women go into the barn as soon as they could see in the morning, and work as late as they could see at night, threshing rice with the flail, and when they could see to thresh no longer, they had to gather up the rice, carry it up stairs, and deposit it in the granary.”
3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
“Tell me that any man living wants to work all his days, from day-dawn till dark, under the constant eye of a master, without the power of putting forth one irresponsible volition, on the same dreary, monotonous, unchanging toil, and all for two pairs of pantaloons and a pair of shoes a year, with enough food and shelter to keep him in working order!”
4. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
“In the latter part of August begins the cotton picking season. At this time each slave is presented with a sack. A strap is fastened to it, which goes over the neck, holding the mouth of the sack breast high, while the bottom reaches nearly to the ground. Each one is also presented with a large basket that will hold about two barrels. This is to put the cotton in when the sack is filled. The baskets are carried to the field and placed at the beginning of the rows.
When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty.”
As many of you know, slavery continues today throughout the world. The organization Anti-Slavery International defines an enslaved person as “someone forced to perform work or services against their will; are owned or controlled by an exploiter; have little-to-no freedom of movement; or are dehumanized, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as property.” According to the United Nations, there are now an estimated 40.3 million people that meet the definition of a slave. A quarter of these are children. Almost three-quarters are women and girls.
In the future, I will be profiling a few champions in the fight to stop modern slavery, and some of the proceeds from this newsletter will go to support their efforts.
My best, Neal