When Were Blacks Truly Freed From Slavery?

For Juneteenth, The Root investigates the blurred line of emancipation in America.

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(The Root) -- Though President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slaves in Texas had no knowledge of their freedom until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 slaves in the state.

Because of the delay, many African Americans started a tradition of celebrating the actual day slavery ended on June 19 (also known as Juneteenth). But for some, their cheers were short-lived. Thanks to the South's lucrative prison labor system and a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a kind of neo-slavery continued for some blacks long into the 1940s. The question then arises: When did African Americans really claim their freedom?

Chattel slavery in the classic sense ended with the Civil War's close and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and dug into local politics.

"It's important not to skip over the first part of true freedom," says Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War ll and co-executive producer of the eponymous documentary film. "Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials."

But the social achievements were fleeting.

"Put yourself in that place," Blackmon says. "You're enslaved, then liberated for 30 years, and then all of a sudden, a certain group of people begin a campaign to force you back into slavery."

Across the South, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. Jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences.

Prisons sold their workforce to nearby industrial companies to work as coal miners, for example, for as much as 9 dollars a month, and inmates were often worked to death. Elsewhere, whites fabricated debt owed by blacks, forcing them into peonage and trading years of free work for their freedom, a practice that spread across the Bible Belt.

But in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved against that notion. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II by Japanese troops, Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 (pdf), giving teeth to the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, which criminalized the practice. Dispatching a federal investigation, Roosevelt's team prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.

However, African-American second-class citizenship has reappeared as a result of the war on drugs and draconian laws created during the 1980s. As civil rights litigator and author Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the subjugation of African Americans through criminalization continues through the prison industrial complex.

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