Forty Acres and A Mule


by Roxanne Tellier     

President Biden’s declaration of June 19th as a new federal holiday – Juneteenth – is an incredible moment for a nation in recovery from a global pandemic. At least half of America is rejoicing at this leap forward in race relations in the nation.   

The other half – well, they wouldn’t be happy unless they were celebrating the cancellation of the Civil Rights Act itself, really. You know, the Civil Rights Act was very nearly not a thing. Fact. The Republican Party was adamant that the Act not be authorized, despite the original powers contained being quite weak. The House passed the bill (290-130) on February 10, 1964, and after a 54-day filibuster, the Senate voted 73-27, for. (The filibuster was led by Democrat senator from Georgia Richard Russell, who said, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure . . . to bring about social equality and intermingling.”) However, it was not until a further amendment was added that the Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964.

There was a similar foot-dragging that went on concerning Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983. You see, a president (in that case, Reagan) can propose a federal holiday, but that doesn’t make it so in all of the states. Neither the president nor Congress have the power to declare a national holiday. That’s one of those ‘states rights’ things. Which is why it took 17 years, until 2000, before MLK Jr Day was actually a national holiday.  

In the case of Juneteenth, I’m guessing we’ve got at least that long to go, if not longer. After all, even as Biden signed the bill, the GOP were enacting legislation outlawing the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT.) Eight U.S. states have already enacted laws banning its teaching, and nine others are very close to joining them.

Juneteenth is … complicated. Juneteenth commemorates something akin to a sick version of “Finders Keepers.”  By which I mean, if the slaves didn’t find out they were freed, the bad guys got to keep ‘em.

Let me back up.

So, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, which declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate States, and not in Union hands, were freed. That actually became effective on January 1, 1863, and there were many people of colour who awaited that day with baited breath, longing to be able to declare themselves free.    

However, it wasn’t until federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, that slavery was essentially ended. (I’ll explain that ‘essentially’ in a second.) It was believed that this was the last bastion of slavery in the nation, and that now, all of the original slaves were freed.

Which means that there were possibly thousands of slaves who were actually free men and women for two and a half years AFTER they had been legally freed by Lincoln, who remained in bondage, being used and abused by their owners, because no one had told them they were freed. Imagine being family to someone beaten or murdered in that time, believing their owners had the right to mutilate them or take their lives, because their lives were bought and paid for.

It would be akin to the concentration camps of Germany still operating in far reaching areas until 1950, because no one had told the prisoners that they were supposed to be freed, and the Kommandants and the SS were not going to be the ones that told them that the allies had won the war.

Anyway, the United States didn’t actually fully abolish slavery until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865.  

But was slavery actually abolished? Sorta kinda. Because those people who made laws and had power at that time tended to be rich business people whose enterprises would be made vastly poorer if they had to actually pay the people who did the backbreaking labour on their plantations and businesses.

Slavery was not abolished even after the Thirteenth Amendment. There were four million freedmen and most of them on the same plantation, doing the same work they did before emancipation, except as their work had been interrupted and changed by the upheaval of war. Moreover, they were getting about the same wages and apparently were going to be subject to slave codes modified only in name. There were among them thousands of fugitives in the camps of the soldiers or on the streets of the cities, homeless, sick, and impoverished. They had been freed practically with no land nor money, and, save in exceptional cases, without legal status, and without protection.” W.E.B. DuBois

So, into that ‘emancipation’ law was snuck a little poison pill that far too many people of colour would be biting for decades to come.      

“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 Amendment to the United States Constitution

Since that would mean the paying of actual wages to workers, Southern states acted quickly to enact an incredible array of laws meant to criminalize nearly everything about the lives of former slaves. These were known as the Black Codes.   

Mississippi was first off the hop, when it passed an 1865 law titled, “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen.”  This law would punish black workers for vagrancy, should they fail to contract themselves to white farmers by January 1st of each year.

“Blacks could be sentenced to forced labor for crimes including petty theft, using obscene language, or selling cotton after sunset. States passed new, strict vagrancy laws that were selectively enforced against blacks without white protectors. The labor of these convicts was then sold to farms, factories, lumber camps, quarries, and mines.  

After its ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in November 1865, the South Carolina legislature immediately began to legislate Black Codes. The Black Codes created a separate set of laws, punishments, and acceptable behaviors for anyone with more than one black great-grandparent. Under these Codes, Blacks could only work as farmers or servants and had few Constitutional rights. Restrictions on black land ownership threatened to make economic subservience permanent.

Some states mandated indefinitely long periods of child “apprenticeship”. Some laws did not target blacks specifically, but instead affected farm workers, most of whom were black. At the same time, many states passed laws to actively prevent blacks from acquiring property.” (Wikipedia)

Far from the promise of ’40 acres and a mule’ being bestowed upon loyal workers post-emancipation, a world of hurt was about to descend, quite legally, upon those who had the misfortune to have so much as a drop of black blood in their veins.  

And it continues to this day. In the very much ‘for profit’ prison system in the states, people of colour are vastly over-represented amongst the millions who are used as – yes – slave labour. Since any one convicted of a crime forfeits their rights to freedom, and is technically a slave, wages paid to prisoners are … slave wages.

“Penal labor is economically important due to it being a source of cheap labor, with base pay being as low as 60 cents per day in Colorado.   …

Firms including those in the technology and food industries are often provided tax incentives to contract prison labor, commonly at below market rates. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) serves as a federal tax credit that grants employers $2,400 for every work-release employed inmate. “Prison in-sourcing” has grown in popularity as an alternative to outsourcing work to countries with lower labor costs.

A wide variety of companies such as Whole Foods, McDonalds, Target, IBM, Texas Instruments, Boeing, Nordstrom, Intel, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, Aramark, AT&T, BP, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike, Honda, Macy’s and Sprint, and many more, actively participated in prison in-sourcing throughout the 1990s and 2000s. After the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol, it was noted that FPI would receive priority when the federal government purchases products such as office furniture to replace what was damaged in the riots.    

Critics of the prison labor system argue that the portrayal of prison expansion as a means of creating employment opportunity is a particularly harmful element of the prison-industrial complex in the United States. Some believe that boosting economic benefits at the expense of an incarcerated populace prioritizes personal financial gain over ensuring payment of societal debt or actual rehabilitation of criminals.”  (Wikipedia)

Many people of colour believe that the elevation of Juneteenth to a federal holiday is little more than a consolation prize; a day off work, though only for those employed by the government. Rather, many would prefer to see legal reforms, an end to the lack of accountability police unions enjoy, and an actual end to slavery, through a reassessment of the penal provisions in the 13th Amendment.

Institutional racism has been built into the United States since the first slaves were brought to its shores in 1619. That, and more, is what is causing so many Republican states to react violently against the concept of critical race theory.

The theory looks at how the law and legal institutions in the U.S. are inherently racist in how regulations and laws are enacted to maintain social, political, and economic inequality.

The very concept of the modern-day idea of ‘race,’ as a definition by which peoples can be enslaved and abused, without repercussion, really only came into general use alongside the formation of the United States. Prior to the 1500s, the term was rarely used, and then only to identify groups of people with a family relationship.

Our current definition of race refers to the identification of groups of people by their physical traits, appearance, and/or characteristics, and is an entirely human invention.

 In the 18th century, political and intellectual leaders began publicly to assert that Africans were naturally inferior, and thus best suited for slavery. This theory was gratefully accepted by Americans who had already decided that the native Americans who actually owned and lived on the lands the settlers coveted were weak, and unworthy of being part of this New Land. That sort of thinking allowed the settlers to ignore the horrors they inflicted on those they drove ever westward, to hellish reservation lands, and to eagerly accept the concept of slavery of Africans. 

Portraying those of different coloured skin as lesser-than, soon applied to any group that came or was brought to America. Slavery was a natural, and so cost effective. Exploitation of the First Peoples, of the Africans brought in chains, and then of refugees from other countries, most notably of the Chinese that built the railroads, brought enormous wealth to those that could not conceive of the humanity of any other than their own white, Christian brethren.

Critical race theory shines a klieg light on to the legal white racism that non-Caucasians have been subjected to for generations. The GOP wishes to condemn and cancel any talk of how the health, wealth and legal standing of people of colour are decided in their courts, but civil rights scholars have definitively shown that past and current American laws maintain white supremacy, and allow societal and structural racism.

The fight continues for equality. One small step at a time, we move forward … even if it means we do it under the burden of dragging the ignorant, the unwilling, and the racist on our backs to the finish line.

Happy Juneteenth!

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this enlightening article! I confess to having been quite unaware of some of this stuff. Wow. Unless we know about it, we can’t do anything about it, so knowing about it is essential! This will take some time to properly absorb.

    1. thank YOU for your kind words!
      Yes, there is much that we’ve been blind to, or been shielded from, in our histories.
      But you are right – once you know better, the onus is on us to do better.
      Cheers!

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