Juneteenth Didn’t Stop the Enslavement of Black People in Houston

The delayed enforcement of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation still didn’t bring freedom to many black Texans

Slave Tags
These tags were used to identify slaves before emancipation Louie Psihoyos/CORBIS

It famously took over two years for black citizens in Texas to reap the benefits of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, resulting in the impromptu celebration now known as Juneteenth. But, writes TIME’s Lily Rothman, the official end of slavery in Texas didn’t keep whites in Houston from enslaving blacks.

Long before Junetheenth, Texas was a stronghold for Southern slave owners worried about losing their human property. The Root’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes that as early as 1862, Texas was flooded by slave owners from neighboring states who fled to the westernmost outpost of slavery, bringing with them more than 150,000 slaves. They thought that Texans were so far West that they had no idea emancipation had occurred. That turns out to be false, as Civil War scholar Ed Cotham writes in the Galveston County Daily News, “Lincoln’s emancipation proclamations in 1862 and 1863 had been widely covered in the Texas press.”

The issue was that pro-slavery Texans did not agree with — or feel inclined to enforce — antislavery laws. So they simply ignored the end of slavery until the end of the Civil War, when an order from a Union General made it clear that Lincoln’s two-year-old Emancipation Proclamation would be upheld. But even that, didn't make some Texans follow the law. 

Rothman writes that even after the first Juneteenth celebration on June 19, 1865, “the people of Houston didn’t quite get the message” that blacks were free. Instead, they stopped free blacks in the street and demanded to know who their owners were. When those black Texans refused to answer or did not name their former owners, “they would be accused of idleness and put to work for the city,” Rothman reports — an outcome that sounds pretty similar to the enslaved state blacks found themselves in before the Proclamation was recognized in Texas.

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