Early Saturday morning, an activist named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole on the grounds of the State House in Columbia, South Carolina and removed the Confederate flag flying there. She and at least one other accomplice were quickly arrested, as I’m sure they expected to be. They’re currently facing a misdemeanor charge of defacing a monument.
That particular flag has been the focal point of intense controversy over the past week, as everyone knows. An act like Newsome’s, I’m sure, was not unexpected. And while I would expect various pro-flag groups to denounce Newsome’s actions, I’m also — frankly — not surprised at some of the comments about it left on the Virginia Flaggers’ Facebook page. I’m putting them after the jump because they’re pretty damned ugly:
Someone observed once that 1968 was a year in which Americans experienced more history than we were able to absorb. That’s what the last two weeks feels like to me.
Y’all have a great weekend.
If you’re not completely exhausted and burned out by the coverage of events of the past few days in Charleston (and Columbia), I’d like to recommend five essays that are worth your time.
Ta-Nehesi Coates: What this Cruel War was Over:
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage. . . .
It is difficult for modern Americans to understand such militant commitment to the bondage of others. But at $3.5 billion, the four million enslaved African Americans in the South represented the country’s greatest financial asset. And the dollar amount does not hint at the force of enslavement as a social institution. By the onset of the Civil War, Southern slaveholders believed that African slavery was one of the great organizing institutions in world history, superior to the “free society” of the North.
The Freedmen’s Patrol Blog: A Murderous Tradition of White America:
This attack does not present us with a mystery. The assassin told us with words and action precisely what he intended to do. The people who tell us otherwise could not have chosen a more obvious lie. He acted alone and isolated only in the narrowest, most literal sense that he did not gather together a conspiracy to help him. He had accomplices, morally at least, all around him. The people who named the streets, who raised the flag, who smiled off camera and took his picture, all played their part. They told the assassin that people who prosecuted the case for white supremacy, to the very point of war, deserved recognition and celebration. We don’t name streets after people we consider villains. We don’t fly flags we view as odious. The assassin has other accomplices who now pretend that the shooting had nothing to do with the persistence of white supremacy in the United States. They might deplore his methods, but by obscuring his ideology they enable it. Whether they cloak their cries of white power in the language of anti-anti-racism, as if one prefix did not negate the other, or say nothing because they dare not alienate what they correctly understand as a key voting constituency, they attend the shooting with more than indifference and less than the abhorrence it deserves. They know full well that if the assassin had different skin color or a different presumed religion, they would have no such scruples. How does one explain any of that, unless the excusers and obscurers are themselves white supremacists? If that doesn’t amount to racism, then nothing does.
Paul Mullins, Imagining the Racist Landscape:
Roof visited all these places in the months leading up to his mass murder at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (see Corey McQuinn’s analysis of the Charleston Church’s history), yet he did not negate their histories by refuting the sites’ narratives. Ruff did not engage the critical histories told at Boone Hall, Sullivan’s Island, or McLeod Plantation, and his presence at Elmwood was at best a mute commemoration of Confederate dead with whom he perhaps fancied he had some affinity. His screed accompanying his “The Last Rhodesian” web page had nothing to say about the specific places he visited; instead, it simply repeated stale racist rhetoric and may betray the desperation of White privilege in the hands of an unreflective thinker. This is a somewhat different rhetorical approach than Confederate defenders and revisionists who weave historical fact and ideological biases into narratives that re-cast the war, the color line, and Southern heritage; Ruff’s text for the most part simply railed on a host of non-WASP peoples. Ruff does allude to “an American [sic] to be proud of and fight for,” a nation that apparently existed in some moment before Vietnam, but like many White supremacists Roof’s shallow history romanticizes a segregated world and rails at the perceived erosion of White privilege.
The Cotton Boll Conspiracy Blog, Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’:
Prior to the mid-1950s, the national news media didn’t perceive the persecution of blacks in the Deep South as being worthy of more than scant coverage, enabling extremists to kill, maim and intimidate blacks with almost complete impunity. With the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in 1955 that began to change. The murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 further prompted national news media to focus attention on Deep South transgressions. Once the major news media began to shine its spotlight on what was going on in the region regarding terror and mayhem, the federal government began to take a greater interest in putting an end to it. There are countless other examples of “perceptions” faced by blacks, along with those other minorities and women, that we now understand were not just misguided but out-and-out wrong. None of the above is to say that the flag issue isn’t worthy of discussion. But it should be done with logic and rational thought, rather than focusing on nebulous feelings that can neither be proved nor disproved.
Robert Moore, Charleston… and observations:
Historians have every right to be passionate and zealous for a “cause”; they can even be activists. It’s just that when that cause intersects with their professional historical era of interests, I find it a little troubling. For one, depending on the advocacy, I begin to question the ability of the same historians to really be objective when they return to the practice of writing and speaking about their historical era (obviously, in this case, I’m talking about the Civil War). More specifically, I find it troubling when, in the course of advocacy… for that common cause… the passionate and (overly?) zealous historians are much more accepting (yes… I’ve seen this in various places on the Web and in blogs) of those who rant and rave with poor history. I find it odd that they don’t keep the others in check. I’d say it might be a matter of one battle at a time, but then… there are also examples where I’ve seen selective dismissal of one ranting of poor history, but not another. I believe the “temporary lapses of forgiveness” of poor history displays compromised professionalism for zeal. I don’t think such compromise, even in the midst of passion for advocacy, is a good thing.
Good reads, and lots to consider.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held today that specialty license plates are a form of government speech:
History shows that States, including Texas, have long used license plates to convey government speech, e.g., slogans urging action, promoting tourism, and touting local industries. Cf. id., at 470. Second, Texas license plate designs “are often closely identified in the public mind with the [State].” Id., at 472. Each plate is a government article serving the governmental purposes of vehicle registration and identification. The governmental nature of the plates is clear from their faces: the State places the name “TEXAS” in large letters across the top of every plate. Texas also requires Texas vehicle owners to display license plates, issues every Texas plate, and owns all of the designs on its plates. The plates are, essentially, government IDs, and ID issuers “typically do not permit” their IDs to contain “message[s] with which they do not wish to be associated,” id., at 471. Third, Texas maintains direct control over the messages conveyed on its specialty plates, by giving the Board final approva lover each design. Like the city government in Summum, Texas “has effectively controlled the messages [conveyed] by exercising final approval authority over their selection.” Id., at 473. These considerations, taken together, show that Texas’s specialty plates are similar enough to the monuments in Summum to call for the same result.
The Court has also recognized that the First Amendment stringently limits a State’s authority to compel a private party to express a view with which the private party disagrees. Just as Texas cannot require SCV to convey “the State’s ideological message,” id., at 715, SCV cannot force Texas to include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates.
This is not an outcome I expected. Heretofore the federal courts have upheld plates like these in other states; now that the Supreme Court has ruled the other way, expect moves in those other states to rescind those plate programs. Today’s ruling also underscores the principle that governmental entities have significant latitude to pick and choose what causes or events they promote or commemorate, even when solicited to do so by the public. I have no idea how this will all shake out in the long run. You can download the full opinion here.
[This post originally appeared here on June 19, 2010.]
“Emancipation” by Thomas Nast. Ohio State University.
Juneteenth has come again, and (quite rightly) the Galveston County Daily News, the paper that first published General Granger’s order that forms the basis for the holiday, has again called for the day to be recognized as a national holiday:
Those who are lobbying for a national holiday are not asking for a paid day off. They are asking for a commemorative day, like Flag Day on June 14 or Patriot Day on Sept. 11. All that would take is a presidential proclamation. Both the U.S. House and Senate have endorsed the idea. Why is a national celebration for an event that occurred in Galveston and originally affected only those in a single state such a good idea? Because Juneteenth has become a symbol of the end of slavery. No matter how much we may regret the tragedy of slavery and wish it weren’t a part of this nation’s story, it is. Denying the truth about the past is always unwise. For those who don’t know, Juneteenth started in Galveston. On Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. But the order was meaningless until it could be enforced. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 — after the Confederacy had been defeated and Union troops landed in Galveston — that the slaves in Texas were told they were free. People all across the country get this story. That’s why Juneteenth celebrations have been growing all across the country. The celebration started in Galveston. But its significance has come to be understood far, far beyond the island, and far beyond Texas.
This is exactly right. Juneteenth is not just of relevance to African Americans or Texans, but for all who ascribe to the values of liberty and civic participation in this country. A victory for civil rights for any group is a victory for us all, and there is none bigger in this nation’s history than that transformation represented by Juneteenth.
But as widespread as Juneteenth celebrations have become — I was pleased and surprised, some years ago, to see Juneteenth celebration flyers pasted up in Minnesota — there’s an awful lot of confusion and misinformation about the specific events here, in Galveston, in June 1865 that gave birth to the holiday. The best published account of the period appears in Edward T. Cotham’s Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston, from which much of what follows is abstracted.
The United States Customs House, Galveston.
On June 5, Captain B. F. Sands entered Galveston harbor with the Union naval vessels Cornubia and Preston. Sands went ashore with a detachment and raised the United States flag over the federal customs house for about half an hour. Sands made a few comments to the largely silent crowd, saying that he saw this event as the closing chapter of the rebellion, and assuring the local citizens that he had only worn a sidearm that day as a gesture of respect for the mayor of the city.
The 1857 Ostermann Building, site of General Granger’s headquarters, at the southwest corner of 22nd Street and Strand. Image via Galveston Historical Foundation.
A large number of Federal troops came ashore over the next two weeks, including detachments of the 76th Illinois Infantry. Union General Gordon Granger, newly-appointed as military governor for Texas, arrived on June 18, and established his headquarters in Ostermann Building (now gone) on the southwest corner of 22nd and Strand. The provost marshal, which acted largely as a military police force, set up in the Customs House. The next day, June 19, a Monday, Granger issued five general orders, establishing his authority over the rest of Texas and laying out the initial priorities of his administration. General Orders Nos. 1 and 2 asserted Granger’s authority over all Federal forces in Texas, and named the key department heads in his administration of the state for various responsibilities. General Order No. 4 voided all actions of the Texas government during the rebellion, and asserted Federal control over all public assets within the state. General Order No. 5 established the Army’s Quartermaster Department as sole authorized buyer for cotton, until such time as Treasury agents could arrive and take over those responsibilities.
It is General Order No. 3, however, that is remembered today. It was short and direct:
Headquarters, District of Texas
Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865 General Orders, No. 3 The people 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 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. By order of
F. W. Emery, Maj. & A.A.G.
What’s less clear is how this order was disseminated. It’s likely that printed copies were put up in public places. It was published on June 21 in the Galveston Daily News, but otherwise it is not known if it was ever given a formal, public and ceremonial reading. Although the symbolic significance of General Order No. 3 cannot be overstated, its main legal purpose was to reaffirm what was well-established and widely known throughout the South, that with the occupation of Federal forces came the emancipation of all slaves within the region now coming under Union control.
The James Moreau Brown residence, now known as Ashton Villa, at 24th & Broadway in Galveston. This site is well-established in recent local tradition as the site of the original Juneteenth proclamation, although direct evidence is lacking.
Local tradition has long held that General Granger took over James Moreau Brown’s home on Broadway, Ashton Villa, as a residence for himself and his staff. To my knowledge, there is no direct evidence for this. Along with this comes the tradition that the Ashton Villa was also the site where the Emancipation Proclamation was formally read out to the citizenry of Galveston. This belief has prevailed for many years, and is annually reinforced with events commemorating Juneteenth both at the site, and also citing the site. In years past, community groups have even staged “reenactments” of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation from the second-floor balcony, something which must surely strain the limits of reasonable historical conjecture. As far as I know, the property’s operators, the Galveston Historical Foundation, have never taken an official stand on the interpretation that Juneteenth had its actual origins on the site. Although I myself have serious doubts about Ashton Villa having having any direct role in the original Juneteenth, I also appreciate that, as with the band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as Titanic sank beneath the waves, arguing against this particular cherished belief is undoubtedly a losing battle.
Assuming that either the Emancipation Proclamation (or alternately, Granger’s brief General Order No. 3) was formally, ceremonially read out to the populace, where did it happen? Charles Waldo Hayes, writing several years after the war, says General Order No. 3 was “issued from [Granger’s] headquarters,” but that sounds like a figurative description rather than a literal one. My bet would not be Ashton Villa, but one of two other sites downtown already mentioned: the Ostermann Building, where Granger’s headquarters was located and where the official business of the Federal occupation was done initially, or at the United States Customs House, which was the symbol of Federal property both in Galveston and the state as a whole, and (more important still) was the headquarters of Granger’s provost marshal, Lieutenant Colonel Rankin G. Laughlin (right, 1827-78) of the 94th Illinois Infantry. It’s easy to imagine Lt. Col. Laughlin dragging a crate out onto the sidewalk in front of the Customs House and barking out a brief, and somewhat perfunctory, read-through of all five of the general’s orders in quick succession. No flags, no bands, and probably not much of a crowd to witness the event. My personal suspicion is that, were we to travel back to June 1865 and witness the origin of this most remarkable and uniquely-American holiday, we’d find ourselves very disappointed in how the actual events played out at the time.
Maybe the Ashton Villa tradition is preferable, after all.
Update, June 19: Over at Our Special Artist, Michele Walfred takes a closer look at Nast’s illustration of emancipation.
Update 2, June 19: Via Keith Harris, it looks like retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison supports a national Juneteenth holiday, too. Good for her.
Update 3, June 19, 2013: Freedmen’s Patrol nails the general public’s ambivalence about Juneteenth:
I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.
[This post originally appeared on June 20, 2011.]
Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War Museum, drops the hammer on the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and the organization behind it, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJoF). He argues that the narrative used to justify the propose holiday does little to credit African Americans with taking up their own struggle, and instead presents them as passive players in emancipation, waiting on the beneficence of the Union army to do it for them. Further, he presses, the standard Juneteenth narrative carries forward a long-standing, intentional effort to suppress the story of how African Americans, in ways large and small, worked to emancipate themselves, particularly by taking up arms for the Union. He wraps up a stem-winder:
Certainly, informed and knowledgeable people should not celebrate the suppression of their own history. Juneteenth day is a de facto celebration of such suppression. Americans, especially Americans of African descent, should not celebrate when the enslaved were freed by someone else, because that’s not the accurate story. They should celebrate when the enslaved freed themselves, by saving the Union. Such freedmen were heroes, not spectators, and their story is currently being suppressed by the advocates of the Juneteenth national holiday. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves; it made it legal for this disenfranchised, enslaved population to free themselves, while maintaining the supremacy of the Constitution, and preserving the Union. They became the heroes of the Republic. It is as Lincoln said: without the military help of the black freedman, the war against the South could not have been won. That’s worth celebrating. That’s worth telling. The story of how Americans of African descent helped save the Union, and freed themselves. Let’s celebrate the truth, a glorious history, a story of a glorious march to Liberty.
Jones makes a powerful argument, with solid points. But I think he misses something crucial, which is that in Texas, where Juneteenth originated, it’s been a regular celebration since 1866. It is not a modern holiday, established retroactively to commemorate an event in the long past; the celebration of Juneteenth is as old as emancipation itself. It was created and carried on by the freedmen and -women themselves:
Some of the early emancipation festivities were relegated by city authorities to a town’s outskirts; in time, however, black groups collected funds to purchase tracts of land for their celebrations, including Juneteenth. A common name for these sites was Emancipation Park. In Houston, for instance, a deed for a ten-acre site was signed in 1872, and in Austin the Travis County Emancipation Celebration Association acquired land for its Emancipation Park in the early 1900s; the Juneteenth event was later moved to Rosewood Park. In Limestone County the Nineteenth of June Association acquired thirty acres, which has since been reduced to twenty acres by the rising of Lake Mexia. Particular celebrations of Juneteenth have had unique beginnings or aspects. In the state capital Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau and became part of the calendar of public events by 1872. Juneteenth in Limestone County has gathered “thousands” to be with families and friends. At one time 30,000 blacks gathered at Booker T. Washington Park, known more popularly as Comanche Crossing, for the event. One of the most important parts of the Limestone celebration is the recollection of family history, both under slavery and since. Another of the state’s memorable celebrations of Juneteenth occurred in Brenham, where large, racially mixed crowds witness the annual promenade through town. In Beeville, black, white, and brown residents have also joined together to commemorate the day with barbecue, picnics, and other festivities.
It’s one thing to argue with another historian or community leader about the the historical narrative represented by a public celebration (think Columbus Day), but it’s entirely another to — in effect — dismiss the understanding of the day as originally celebrated by the people who actually lived those events, and experienced them at first hand.
What do you think?
h/t Kevin. Image: Juneteenth celebration in Austin, June 19, 1900. PICA 05476, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
The new issue of the Civil War Monitor is now online, and will be appearing in mailboxes and on newsstands shortly. In this issue:
Angels of War. Like the men they saw off to the front, women too felt the pull of patriotism at the outbreak of the Civil War. For many wives, daughters, and sisters—northern and southern, young and old—the most useful way to support country and cause was to volunteer as a nurse.
Closing Act. In the last months of the Civil War, Texas and the Trans-Mississippi of the Confederacy struggled to hang on. By Andrew W. Hall
Death and Life on Belle Isle. An idyllic setting on the James River—where modern Richmonders bike, swim, run, and relax—belies a dark Civil War history. By John M. Coski
Editorial: Angels of War
Salvo: Facts, Figures & Items of Interest
Travels: A Visit to Jackson
Voices: Dog Days
Dossier: Robert E. Lee
Preservation: Saving the Heart of Antietam
Figures: The Rifle Musket
Disunion: Lee Surrendered, But His Lieutenants Kept Fighting
Cost of War: George C. Clapp Letters
In Focus: Richmond in Ruins
Books & Authors:
Voices from the Army of the Potomac, Part 5. By Gary W. Gallagher
The Books That Built Me. By Brian Matthew Jordan
Parting Shot: An Invisible Wound
It’s a real treat to have a feature story appear alongside works by folks like John Coski, Gary Gallagher, and Brian Matthew Jordan. Now would be a good time to subscribe to the Monitor.
One hundred fifty years ago today, June 5, 1865, Federal forces formally took possession of Texas. Captain Benjamin F. Sands, commanding the division of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron stationed off Galveston, boarded a small Union steamer, U.S.S. Cornubia, and entered Galveston harbor, followed by another gunboat, U.S.S. Preston. Sands disembarked with a handful of other officers — but took no armed escort — and was met on the wharf by a Confederate officer. The officer escorted the Union men a few blocks to City Hall (above), where both Sands and the mayor of Galveston addressed a crowd that had gathered there. Both men made assurances of their goodwill and urged the population to go about their business peaceably. Sands told the crowd that he carried a sidearm that day not out of any fear for his own safety but as a sign of respect for the mayor and local officials. Then, along with the mayor, Sands continued on to the old U.S. Customs House, where he “hoisted our flag, which now, at last, was flying over every foot of our territory, this being the closing act of the great rebellion.”
Galveston Historical Foundation welcomes the public to a free Juneteenth lecture and document viewing at Menard Hall, 1605 33rd Street, Saturday, June 13th. The lecture, given by Dr. Deborah L. Mack (right), will begin at 10 am and will describe the mission, vision and goals that have shaped the development of the Washington D.C.’s National African American Museum of History and Culture, a Smithsonian museum. Dr. Mack will also highlight places and stories that will be featured in the inaugural exhibits and programs at the NAAMHC and will share some of the open access strategies for shared information that are presently in development. Reservations are free with RSVP.
“GHF is pleased to bring to Galveston one of the significant individuals involved in the development of this new museum,” states GHF Executive Director, Dwayne Jones. “We feel her introduction to our island’s rich African American history will be help all of us continue to promote and educate visitors and residents about this under-represented story.”
Immediately following the lecture until noon, guests will have the opportunity to view an original print of General Order No. 3. Provided by the Dallas Historical Society. General Order No. 3 was issued by Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, the order was an official enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln. It was posted in county courthouses and read aloud by plantation owners across Texas to circulate the news to the state’s 250,000 slaves. The date of the order became an impromptu holiday in the years after 1865. June 19, soon shortened to Juneteenth, was marked by picnics, music festivals, family reunions and political activities. It is the only known copy of the document and the first time it has been exhibited in Galveston.
“We are excited to bring an authentic copy of General Order Number 3 to Galveston where it was once a key piece of the beginnings of Juneteenth,” explains Jones. “We hope everyone gets to see the document and continue to learn about the importance of this event and its legacy in the nation.”
The American Civil War ended one hundred fifty years ago today, at about 5 p.m. local time, when Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith (right) surrendered the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department to U.S. Brigadier General E. J. Davis, aboard U.S.S. Fort Jackson, anchored off the bar at Galveston. The Trans-Mississippi Department, with a nominal strength of 40,000 men or more, had almost entirely dissolved over the previous six weeks. Kirby Smith’s was the last major Confederate command to surrender, although some smaller, isolated units held on for weeks (or months) longer.