Susan Ross was a 3 year old slave living in Texas when her family learned they were free. Even as a child, she remembered how excited her older brother was when he heard the news.
“When my older brother hears that we’re free, he screams, runs and jumps up a high fence, and says goodbye to mom,” she told an official decades later as part of the tales of slaves collected for the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s.
He then picked her up, gave her a hug and a kiss, and left the plantation a free black man.
“I don’t know where he is going, but I never saw him again,” she said.
Ross and his family were among the thousands of Texas slaves who were finally freed in June 1865, a day that is now celebrated as a national holiday – Juneteenth.
The new June 17 national holiday celebrates the end of slavery and focuses on the arrival of Union troops in Texas on June 19, 1865 with news of emancipation – although the Emancipation Proclamation has been issued 2 and a half years earlier. But Juneteenth did not mean immediate freedom for everyone. Slaves in Native American territories had to wait another year to be freed. And despite the legal end of slavery, white Southerners quickly enacted racist laws, called “Black Codes,” which restricted black freedom for decades to come.
Slavery on Amerindian territory
The first step in the abolition of slavery began with President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation freed all slaves from the Confederate States, but not the States that formed a border between North and South. . Slavery existed in two border states, Delaware and Kentucky, for almost six months after June 17, as their state legislatures rejected the Thirteenth Amendment after it was passed by Congress in January 1865.
The next important steps came with the end of the Civil War in April 1865 and the ratification in December 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery anywhere “in the United States, or any place under its jurisdiction.”
But Native American nations were not subject to American jurisdiction over slavery. After 1865, approximately 10,000 people remained in slavery among five major tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.
“One of the tricky parts of this story is that on the one hand, Native Americans and people of African descent are really under this colonial rule,” said Barbara Krauthamer, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. . “But there is also this story of Native Americans making economic and political decisions to participate in this institution of movable slavery and acquire blacks as property as slaves.”
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Native Americans adopted black slavery from Europeans as early as the 1500s, said Alaina Roberts, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. But these five specific tribes began to assimilate into Euro-American culture in the late 1700s, including owning slaves as a means of accumulating wealth, she said.
The purpose and value of slaves in Native American territory was similar to those enslaved in the Deep South. The men were used for agricultural work – planting crops, tending the cotton fields and herding livestock, Roberts said. The women did the housework – cooking, cleaning, washing and some gardening work.
Union soldiers stationed in Native American territories believed that slavery was not comparable to the movable slavery that existed in the South.
“It was a consensus of opinion among the white troops who had been with the Indians for nearly a year that Negro slavery … had only been in name,” wrote Wiley Britton, a soldier. of the Civil War, in his book, “The Indian Union Brigade During the Civil War.”
The slave accounts, however, tell both sides of the story. Many slaves spoke of their masters’ kindness, while others shed light on the brutal side, including beatings and rapes.
“Old Master Frank never worked hard on us and we had a lot of great food to eat,” Kiziah Love said of Choctaw owner Frank Colbert. But Prince Bee, a former slave in Native American territory, described a brutal beating his brother received when he tried to run away, which left him blind in one eye.
“The old master whipped him until blood squirted all over his body, the bull’s whip cutting deeper all the time,” he recalls. “He finished the whip with a coarse damp towel and the end put my brother in the eye.”
Native American nations existed as self-governing political entities, which gave them the right to their own government. Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the Thirteenth Amendment applied to their territories. The freedom of slaves had to be negotiated.
It was not until the spring and summer of 1866 that the five tribes accepted the final terms of their respective treaties with the United States, officially ending slavery in Native American territories, Krauthamer said.
Love told a Federal Writers’ Project employee in 1937 that she cried out to heaven when she learned she was a free woman in 1866.
“I was happy to be free,” said the 93-year-old. “Well, I clapped my hands jokingly and said, ‘Thank God I’m finally free! “”
Black codes and convict hire
After the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 and Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, the task of rebuilding the South fell to President Andrew Johnson. But it has largely enabled the southern states to rebuild themselves.
In May 1965, Johnson pardoned former Confederate officials who were prepared to pledge allegiance to the United States. This allowed the former Confederates to regain political power in the South almost immediately after the war. Instead of including the newly released people in the new order, politicians set out to restore elements of the old order.
Southern states instituted a series of oppressive laws, called “Black Codes,” which restricted the freedom of movement of blacks and gave whites in the south the legal justification for continuing to extract forced labor from blacks.
Black codes varied among southern states. African Americans were to sign annual labor contracts with white landowners. A Mississippi law of 1865 gave courts the power to jail any black adult who did not have “legal employment” by the second Monday in January each year.
Other southern states, such as South Carolina, have required that all black employees be designated “servants” and employers be designated “masters.” A parish in Louisiana adopted a black code that required that “every negro … be in the regular service of a white person, or of a former owner, who will be held responsible for the conduct of that negro.”
“These were laws designed to ensure that African Americans could not fully exercise their freedom,” said Michael Ross, professor of history at the University of Maryland.
It was a crime for a black man to carry a gun, drink alcohol or gather in small groups after sunset, Ross said. By enforcing these racist and petty laws, the southern states were able to drag thousands of blacks into the justice system and extract free labor from it.
Any minor offense could be punished with severe penalties. And this string of unreasonable and superficial laws has imprisoned blacks, giving way to the system of leasing the condemned. This system of hiring convicts, which flourished in the late 19th century, allowed businesses and farmers to hire convicts from the state for free labor.
“Instead of being locked in the county jail, people were often arrested and charged with vagrancy and hired out to local farmers,” said Ahmed White, a law professor at the University of Colorado.
The convicts were also responsible for building railways, working in mines and maintaining fields. One minor misdemeanor, or no misdemeanor at all, caused blacks to provide free labor to help boost the economy of the post-slavery South.
Often chained, beaten, malnourished and overworked, the tenants suffered horrific conditions. In 1887, the Grand Jury of Hinds County, Mississippi, issued a report detailing abuses of the convict rental system in his state. He said the convicts had been “treated more cruelly and brutally than a nation of savages should allow them to be inflicted on its captives.”
The grand jury observed the physical abuse they suffered and their squalid living conditions, including rats crawling all over their faces.
“They are lying there, dying, some of them on bare boards, so poor and emaciated their bones almost go through their skin, many complaining of the lack of food,” said the 1887 grand jury report. grand jury concluded its report by saying, “God will never smile on a state that treats its convicts like Mississippi does.” “
The establishment of black codes, which allowed the convict hire system to evolve, has been a key way for politicians in the South to preserve the essence of slavery, Ross said.
“There was a whole series of laws designed to create a separate working class in the South, despite the fact that slavery was over,” he said. “Restrictions on black freedom ensured that African Americans remained second-class people. “