Juneteenth is one of the oldest recognized celebrations commemorating an end to slavery. I learned about it as an undergraduate student with friends who wanted me to know the story and why it mattered. I listened then and have continued to learn. It should serve as a moment of reflection for all of us.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to deliver General Order №3, proclaiming the emancipation of the enslaved African Americans. In theory freedom had already been granted two and a half years earlier by presidential order through the Emancipation Proclamation. In the waning days of the Civil War, Congress also passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified in December 1865, abolishing most forms of slavery.
Texan slaveholders ignored the 1863 proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment and continued to hold the enslaved as well as withhold the knowledge of their freedom. In this, thirty additional months of the brutality of slavery would be added to the lives of more than 250,000 people living in Texas. Recognizing the importance of this moment requires remembering that there is enormous chasm between granting freedom in proclamation and law and realizing it on the ground.
As a scholar of slavery, though primarily with a focus on Native Americans enslaved in the region recognized today as the Southwest, I too have thought of this chasm between when freedom is granted and when and how it is actually realized. Although this slavery was for centuries a “tolerated illegality,” once under the rule of the United States — slavery of any kind, from an ideological standpoint posed a significant problem for the nation, just then emerging from itself divided over the issue. In this era, its eradication was first attempted by executive order, encouraging military intervention, then through the courts and finally through legislation.
In reality, for many of the enslaved Native Americans living in this region, freedom was more of a slow process and less marked by a moment in time.
In New Mexico, stories would be recounted and shared from one generation to the next reflecting that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was the force that ultimately freed Native Americans living in the region. For instance, in the memoir written of Rosario Romero, the enslaved Diné woman of Padre Antonio José Martínez of Taos, this moment is recounted by Dora Ortiz Vásquez, the great granddaughter of Padre Martínez:
It was after President Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation, and Padre Martínez was now ready to break the news to Rosario that she was a free woman. . . He called Rosario to him. “Rosario,” said the good Padre, “the time has come at last, only through the efforts of a new government. You are no longer a slave belonging to me. You are a free woman. “A man named Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, has at last, through a hard struggle, finally declared you free. . .”
Vásquez’ portrayal of Rosario’s alleged freedom appears more romanticized than real. In fact, although the military had attempted to free Native Americans in 1865, it proved nearly impossible. The courts were soon recognized as holding more pressure. It was perhaps this pressure that prompted Padre Martínez to appear before the Taos County Probate Court in its January 1867 session, petitioning not to free Maria Rosario, his “famula,” (maid servant), but to make him her legal guardian. Within six months, Martínez would fall ill and pass away.
With the passing of Padre Martínez, Rosario would move to Ocate with Martínez’s son, George Romero and his family. In 1868, a federal agent would be appointed to identify the crime of holding slaves and Romero would be charged with the crime of slavery, along with hundreds of others in Taos, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba Counties. In the end, the Grand Jury that heard the cases failed to indict, which was not surprising since it was a jury that was composed of citizens that were intricately bound to the institution. In the decades that followed Rosario continued to be listed next door to George in 1870, 1880 and 1885, identified as an Indian servant in his household still. This is one of thousands of histories I have gathered in my decades long research and writing on this topic.
As with many African Americans and others enslaved in different eras and places, for some Native Americans freedom never came at all, ending only when the enslaved closed their eyes forever. The legacy of these expriences was longer lasting, however. The present retains traumas born from the past, a spiritual, emotional and psychological wounding that radiates across the generations and has contemporary implications, including internalized wounds that are only beginning to be measured.
We are living through a remarkable moment in history where the inequities of the past continue to radiate in the present. We are being called to think more critically and creatively about how history is represented and commemorated, including in the events that reflect the delicacy, strength and promise of our humanity. Our stories are not always known across cultures, but we have the opportunity to listen and learn from one another.
For me, Juneteenth is a remarkable commemoration that holds tremendous meaning, one that allows me to remember how ideals like freedom and equity are realized not only in struggle and activism, but by learning from our past.