A Juneteenth Father’s Day: The Meaning of Emancipation for Black Dads

w: Johnathon E. Briggs

A Juneteenth Father’s Day: The Meaning of Emancipation for Black Dads

— June 13, 2021 —

Ever since the nation’s first Fathers’ Day was celebrated in 1910, the “day for dads” has occasionally shared the same date as Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States: June 19.

This observation ordinarily would be little more than a coincidence of the calendar. But in recent weeks with the national spotlight on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the lives of my forefathers and foremothers have been at the forefront of my mind. One particular question has stood out: “What did it mean to be a newly freed Black man and a father in the American South on June 19, 1865?”

That’s the day— about two months after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va.—that Union Army general Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. They were charged with informing more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state that the Civil War had ended and they were free by an executive decree known as General Order No. 3:

“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.”

This news triggered bewilderment as well as joyous celebrations among the newly freed Blacks, beginning what is now known as Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”).

“We was all walkin’ on golden clouds….Everybody went wild…We was free. Just like that we was free,” a former slave named Felix Haywood recalled of the first celebrations, as noted in the book “Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas.” “Right off, colored folks started on the move. They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they’d know what it was—like it was a place or a city.”

As Blacks from Texas migrated across the country, they took Juneteenth with them. Today the holiday—also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day—is observed in more than 200 U.S. cities with speeches, songs, picnics, parades, and exhibits, according to the Galveston Historical Foundation.

Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900 held in Texas. (Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

“Right off, colored folks started on the move. They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they’d know what it was—like it was a place or a city.”—Felix Haywood

Now, you may be wondering: Didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln free the nearly 4 million Blacks who were enslaved when the Civil War began? Not exactly.

Even though the proclamation was made effective in 1863, and declared all enslaved people in Confederate States legally free, it could not be enforced in places still under Confederate control. There’s a difference between being legally free and physically free.

“As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later,” as explained by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.”

Finding family after slavery

After they were freed, former slaves set out to reunite with family members—wives, husbands, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, grandparents—who had been torn away by slave owners and traders. The brutality of chattel slavery meant enslaved families were forcefully separated for profit or a host of other reasons: to settle a debt, divide an estate, punish an “unruly” slave, or simply at an owner’s whim. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “roughly half of all enslaved people were separated from their spouses and parents; about one in four of those sold were children.”

Thousands of freedmen and freedwomen wrote to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) requesting assistance in locating loved ones. Others placed ads in newspapers seeking information, such as George Pearman who searched for his wife and two children with this plea in the “Daily Dispatch” (Richmond, VA) published April 24, 1867:

PERSONAL. – I wish to obtain information
in regard to my wife, SUSAN, and TWO
CHILDREN – one a girl, named NELLY, and the
other a boy, named CARTER. They formerly
belonged to Mrs. Ann Cook, of Clarke county, and I
belonged to Hugh Nelson, of the same county.
About the time General Lee’s army went into
Pennsylvania we were all brought to Richmond
and sold and separated. Any information as to
them left at the Dispatch office will be thankfully
received. GEORGE PEARMAN, Colored.

“Their will to search exemplified one of the most important personal expressions of their freedom, and it extended over many years,” historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes on the website Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, a collaboration between the Department of History at Villanova University and Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, that features thousands of newspaper ads placed by former slaves.

“To be an involved, nurturing father was a form of resistance that was simultaneously humanizing and dehumanizing. Fatherhood imbued men with some authority, severely limited by slavery, and yet fatherhood also gave slaveholders increased leverage over a man.”—Libra Hilde

Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia, 1905. (Library of Congress)

In her recent book “Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century,” history professor Libra Hilde shows how enslaved and then free Black fathers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries played—contrary to misconceptions of the “missing father and female matriarch”—a vital role in Black family life and their communities despite social and economic barriers erected by the dominant society.

As Hilde writes:

“Enslaved fathers faced additional agonizing contradictions. To act as caretaker deepened a man’s social connections and provided one form of human meaning, but it also further tied him to a system that eroded his humanity. To be an involved, nurturing father was a form of resistance that was simultaneously humanizing and dehumanizing. Fatherhood imbued men with some authority, severely limited by slavery, and yet fatherhood also gave slaveholders increased leverage over a man. Fathers faced intractable dilemmas. To stand up for oneself or loved ones was to risk removal from and hardship for one’s family. To be a man could mean compromising one’s sense of duty as a man, and this remained true of the African American experience in the postwar period. African Americans articulated an abiding conception of paternal duty from the antebellum period through the 1930s because they faced consistent and ongoing challenges that did not end with emancipation. Slavery and Jim Crow placed two of the central imperatives of masculinity, duty to self and duty to family, in opposition. As a result, enslaved and then free fathers found alternate, indirect, and concealed ways to support their kin, often channeling their leadership and authority through ideas and religion.”

Anaja Campbell, right, and the Denver Dancing Diamonds perform during a Juneteenth celebration parade in Denver on June 20, 2015. (Joe Amon / Denver Post via Getty Images file)

Free-ish since 1865

This year Juneteenth will arrive the same weekend as Father’s Day (June 20) and, in many ways, the challenges faced by Black Americans after the Civil War are the same faced by Black Americans today: disproportionate impoverishment, premature death, incarceration, and structural racism that cripples the collective pursuit of happiness.

In this regard, what it meant to be a newly freed Black man and a father in 1865 mirrors what it means to be a Black man and a father today: providing for and protecting your family, nurturing your children’s sense of self-worth and identity, defying stereotypes, resisting oppression, keeping the faith, and reckoning with the understanding, as Smithsonian Institution secretary Lonnie Bunch observed, that emancipation is “a process that is still unfolding—not simply a day or a moment of jubilee.”

Father on,

P.S. To learn more, check out this article by genealogist Tristan Tolman entitled, “The Effects of Slavery and Emancipation on African American Families and Family History Research” from the website Reclaiming Kin.


Credits

— Banner image: by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

— Featured image: by Reba Spike on Unsplash




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Johnathon E. BriggsHusband • Dad • Autism Advocate • Aspiring YA Author • On @GoodMenProject • #BlackDadMagic • ΑΦΑ

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About

Few may know this, but twice as many dads of newborns today are now in the 40-plus age group, compared to the 1970s. Six weeks before my 40th birthday, I became a first-time father, hence the title of this blog.

This life-changing moment made me think about my own dad, who became a father at 43. As my parenthood journey unfolded, I noticed that most of my friends had become parents earlier in life yet, here I was, changing diapers and battling sleep deprivation at (nearly) 40. I told my wife, “Parenting is definitely a young man’s game.” But is it really?

Where most of my friends were preparing for their children’s middle and high school graduations, I was mastering the art of the swaddle, perfecting the one-hand baby wipe, and learning to decipher my daughter’s gurgles and whimpers. It occurred to me that I had so much more to offer my daughter at the sure-footed age of 40 than I did at, say, 28, when I was still coming into my own.

Fatherhood@Forty: Dispatches from the Parent Hood™ is a creative outlet to share my experiences and connect with other (relatively) late-in-life dads.

Here are a few factoids about me, Johnathon Briggs, the editor behind this blog:

  • I’m a former journalist (Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune).
  • I love exploring Chicago and the Midwest with my family.
  • I remain on a constant quest to stay fit.
  • I support charities that fight HIV, uplift families affected by incarceration, and ensure African American boys graduate from college.
  • I’m a comic book geek (mostly Marvel, but a bit of DC and Image Comics).
  • I’m a child of the ‘80s, so please expect occasional references to the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.

As a reporter for daily newspapers, I had the opportunity to interview fascinating people and to test out great products and brands for my readers. I hope to do the same for you as I blog about the moments that make up this adventure called fatherhood.

Feel free to tweet (@fatherhoodforty) or email (fatherhoodforty@gmail.com) me if you’d like to collaborate or have ideas for a blog post.

Father on,

P.S. Check out The Art of Conversation podcast interview I did with Art Eddy from Life of Dad.

 


Disclaimer: Fatherhood@Forty may contain affiliate marketing links, which may result in commission on sales of products or services I write about. My editorial content is not influenced by advertisers or affiliate partnerships. This disclosure is provided in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR § 255.5: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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About

Few may know this, but twice as many dads of newborns today are now in the 40-plus age group, compared to the 1970s. Six weeks before my 40th birthday, I became a first-time father, hence the title of this blog.

This life-changing moment made me think about my own dad, who became a father at 43. As my parenthood journey unfolded, I noticed that most of my friends had become parents earlier in life yet, here I was, changing diapers and battling sleep deprivation at (nearly) 40. I told my wife, “Parenting is definitely a young man’s game.” But is it really?

Where most of my friends were preparing for their children’s middle and high school graduations, I was mastering the art of the swaddle, perfecting the one-hand baby wipe, and learning to decipher my daughter’s gurgles and whimpers. It occurred to me that I had so much more to offer my daughter at the sure-footed age of 40 than I did at, say, 28, when I was still coming into my own.

Fatherhood@Forty: Dispatches from the Parent Hood™ is a creative outlet to share my experiences and connect with other (relatively) late-in-life dads.

Here are a few factoids about me, Johnathon Briggs, the editor behind this blog:

  • I’m a former journalist (Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune).
  • I love exploring Chicago and the Midwest with my family.
  • I remain on a constant quest to stay fit.
  • I support charities that fight HIV, uplift families affected by incarceration, and ensure African American boys graduate from college.
  • I’m a comic book geek (mostly Marvel, but a bit of DC and Image Comics).
  • I’m a child of the ‘80s, so please expect occasional references to the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.

As a reporter for daily newspapers, I had the opportunity to interview fascinating people and to test out great products and brands for my readers. I hope to do the same for you as I blog about the moments that make up this adventure called fatherhood.

Feel free to tweet (@fatherhoodforty) or email (fatherhoodforty@gmail.com) me if you’d like to collaborate or have ideas for a blog post.

Father on,

P.S. Check out The Art of Conversation podcast interview I did with Art Eddy from Life of Dad.

 


Disclaimer: Fatherhood@Forty may contain affiliate marketing links, which may result in commission on sales of products or services I write about. My editorial content is not influenced by advertisers or affiliate partnerships. This disclosure is provided in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR § 255.5: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
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