By: Regennia N. Williams, PhD Historian and Member of the African American Archives Auxiliary (AAAA) of The Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS)
In keeping with traditions that are more than 150 years old, communities across the country will host Juneteenth celebrations beginning on June 19, 2020. As they commemorate the end of slavery in America, people will participate in parades and festivals, listen to readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, perform the Black National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”), and fly the Juneteenth flag. With the death of George Floyd and ongoing protests against police brutality, however, many Americans are still wondering when Black citizens will gain true freedom in this country.
In this article, we invite you to join us in considering the continuing struggle to secure and protect Black freedom and Black lives in America by focusing on part of the work of Frederick Douglass, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Angela Davis, and Ava DuVernay. This reflection on ideas that are documented in collections that are housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society or are the subjects of programs that have been announced by the Society’s African American Archives Auxiliary, students, teachers, and others can gain new insights about Black agency and activism—even as they relate to holiday celebrations.
The roots of contemporary Juneteenth celebrations of Black freedom can be traced to an event that took place on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. On that day, Union Major General Gordon Granger read the following text from General Order Number 3 to those assembled before him:
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. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
Two months after the end of the Civil War, more than two years after the effective date of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and nearly 246 years after the beginning of African servitude in British North America, the era of slavery in the history of the United States of America had, supposedly, come to an end, and Blacks were being promised freedom, equality, and paid employment.
After four long, bloody years of Civil War and approximately 1 million casualties among the dead, dying, and wounded, making good on the nation’s promise of freedom would prove difficult, at best, for African American people. Nevertheless, the celebrations of Juneteenth or Emancipation Day began in Texas in 1866, and have now gained at least some form of official recognition in 47 states and the District of Columbia.
In the season of Juneteenth 2020, however, many people–including those in the Black Lives Matter Movement, argue that the dream of true freedom for African Americans has been elusive. This, they suggest, is due in no small measure to the language of another key document in the history of American slavery and freedom, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Ratified in December 1865, it states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
As it turns out, the concerns of the Black Lives Matter activists are not new. In fact, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the renowned 19th-century African American abolitionist, orator, and statesman, understood all too well the shortcomings early efforts to improve the quality of life among freed Blacks of his day.
Born in a community of enslaved African Americans, Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, and, while still a fugitive, joined the community of militant, non-violent, radical abolitionists that included William Lloyd Garrison. After the January 1, 1863 effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass served as a recruiter for the Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, and two of his sons volunteered to fight with that Union Regiment. Douglass was clear from the outset; Black men were not fighting for the preservation of the old slaveholding Union. They were fighting for a Union in which Blacks would be free and politically enfranchised. Douglass also became an outspoken suffragist, and his female allies in that struggle included Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
The WRHS Research Library collections include published volumes of Douglass’s papers and his autobiographical works: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage, My Freedom (1855); and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). In January 1867, the fourth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Atlantic published Douglass’s “Appeal for Impartial Suffrage,” in which he concluded:
“The South does not now ask for slavery. It only asks for a large degraded caste, which shall have no political rights. This ends the case. Statesmen, beware what you do. The destiny of unborn and unnumbered generations is in your hands. Will you repeat the mistake of your fathers, who sinned ignorantly? or will you profit by the blood-bought wisdom all round you, and forever expel every vestige of the old abomination from our national borders? As you members of the Thirty-ninth Congress decide, will the country be peaceful, united, and happy, or troubled, divided, and miserable.”
Like Douglass, Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932), was concerned about the racial divide in Post-Civil War America. Chesnutt was a native Clevelander and his manuscript collection and published works by and about him are housed in the WRHS Research Library. An award-winning writer, his publications include an 1899 biography of Frederick Douglass, and he, too, was affiliated with what many of his contemporaries considered to be radical causes. Through his work with the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was established in 1909, he supported both the Anti-Lynching Movement and civil and voting rights for African Americans.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)
The Cleveland Branch of the NAACP was organized in 1912. Even before their charter was issued, race leaders like Chesnutt were becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in race relations in America. In addition to serving on the General Committee of the national organization, in January 1912, Chesnutt became a Cleveland member of the Advisory Committee. Dr. Charles F. Thwing, president of Western Reserve University, and Harry C. Smith, editor of the Cleveland [African American] Gazette, served with him.
More than 100 years since the founding of the NAACP, the radicalism that characterized the activities of its early years lives on in the work of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who “served as president of the North Carolina NAACP, the largest state conference in the South, from 2006 – 2017 and currently sits on the National NAACP Board of Directors.” Dr. Barber is also the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which will lead The Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington: A Digital Justice Gathering. This event is being described as “the largest online gathering of poor and dispossessed people, and people of conscience, in this nation’s history.” The gathering will take place on June 20, 2020, the Saturday of Juneteenth Weekend. While the campaign has a long list of demands, there is one that is directly related to the denial of the very freedoms that the Juneteenth holiday was designed to celebrate and the top priority for the Black Lives Matter Movement: “We demand an end to mass incarceration and the continuing inequalities for black, brown and poor white people within the criminal justice system.” According to information from the Poor People’s Campaign:
“The truth is that poor communities, especially poor communities of color, are being locked up, sent away and killed by law enforcement. Equal protection under the law is non-negotiable and we have the right to move freely without the fear of intimidation, detention, deportation or death by public institutions charged with our safety.”
It is on this point that both Dr. Angela Davis (b. 1944) and filmmaker Ava DuVernay (b. 1972) agree.
Dr. Angela Davis (b. 1944)
Dr. Davis endured her own ordeals with the criminal justice system in the 1970s. The role of the Presbyterian Church in supporting her defense fund during her highly publicized arrest, detention, and trial is documented in the Karl F. Bruch, Jr. Papers in the WRHS Research Library. Following her acquittal, Davis became an academician and author, whose activism continues
unabated. In recent decades, she has written and lectured extensively about the need to dismantle the prison industrial complex in the United States of America. In “Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex: An Interview with Angela Davis” published in the 1998-1999 issue of the journal Race & Class, sociologist Avery Gordon discussed the fundamental problems with the system as Davis saw them. For Davis,
“Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people ensconced in poverty. These problems are often veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category ’crime’ and by the automatic attribution of behaviour to people of colour, especially Black and Latino/a men and women. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”
Ava DuVernay makes a similar point in “13th,” her 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary. Since George Floyd’s death, the demand for this Netflix film has soared. Information in The Center for Concern’s film discussion guide suggests,
“Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th introduces the words of the thirteenth amendment of the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 13th argues that although slavery was ostensibly abolished in 1865, this clause of the thirteenth amendment legally embedded and allowed a pernicious form of enslavement into American institutions. This loophole has since been wielded as a devastating political tool in the form of mass incarceration and criminalization.”
Ava DuVernay (b. 1972)
In a 2017 interview, DuVernay, who supports the Black Lives Matters Movement, contrasted the current political climate during the administration of President Donald Trump with that of the 1960s Civil Rights Era and described the political nature of art:
‘A lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. But when you have a divisive figure like Donald Trump instigating violence and prejudice against people at his own rallies as he pursues the presidency, then he takes power as President and continues to perpetuate misogynistic, homophobic, racist points of view, I feel that I have to, as an artist, tell that story as vigorously and passionately as I can. It was very apparent to me, as I was watching, that he was asking his supporters to be aggressive with and violent with people who were expressing dissent. I saw the alignment of what he was asking for and what had happened in the past, and I wanted to make that point in the montage that we crafted in 13th.’
I feel like all art is political. As artists, we’re sharing our point of view, asserting our identity through our work, whether you’re making a romantic comedy or you’re making a documentary about prison. For artists who are seeing the work as art and not as work for hire, it’s saying something about how they feel. All of the work that I’ve done in film and television, even the commercial work, the images that I try to craft are saying something about me. That won’t change.
In February 2020, the African American Archives Auxiliary (AAAA) of the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) announced plans for a two-part educational screening and discussion of DuVernay’s “13th” that would begin on the Saturday of Juneteenth Weekend. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of the Cleveland History Center and the rescheduling and reformatting of programs, AAAA’s Executive Committee reaffirmed its commitment to facilitating a community discussion of the topics for its proposed program series. Black Lives Matters: The Coronavirus Edition, the theme for which is the brainchild of AAAA Trustee Stephanie Barron, will be the centerpiece for the new series and the first major program initiative for the Auxiliary’s 50th anniversary in FY 2021.
For more information on AAAA and WRHS collections that focus on Black lives and black freedom before and beyond Juneteenth, please CLICK HERE.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 48, Part II.