Friday, 19 August, 2022

Juneteenth: Emancipation of the Enslaved African Americans

Pradip Kumar Dutta

The 19th of June is a Federal holiday in the United States of America. This year, it was the first anniversary of the Federal holiday, declared only last year by the Federal Government. Since 1865 the day has been observed in many of the states, cities and counties in the US as the day when US became officially free of slavery as proclaimed by law. It started from Texas which saw the conclusion of American Civil war and the Emancipation of Freedom from Slavery was proclaimed by President Lincoln in 1862 but could be enacted only in 1865 after the last southern state was annexed. General Gordon Grange abolished slavery by General Order No 3 proclaimed on 19 June, 1865. It is a day of celebration mainly for the African Americans who were exploited as slaves for centuries and were devoid of Civil Rights. Last year, the Day has been listed as a Federal holiday by a Presidential order and the significance of the day and consequently the associated celebrations of parades, demonstrations, music feasts, sumptuous meals taken collectively in groups have increased manifold. Apartheid, religious animosity and colonialism had been the reasons behind the biggest killings and destruction in the world history.

June is not having this joyous history alone. This month has a darker side as well in the US history.First June is a black letter day in the history of USA as well as for the mankind. It marks the day of a huge riot that happened during two days (31May and 1 June of 1921). The reason was apartheid. Black people were killed and tortured mercilessly and in a planned way by the white citizens and the city administration.

The history of the incident was tried to be put under the carpet by the administration. Facts and figures were either downplayed or made to disappear altogether. But history speaks out in its own time. In due course it surfaced and has now come to light as Tulsa Race Massacre. It took place in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a flourishing Black neighborhood and was the wealthiest black area of USA. In fact Greenwood was called Black Wall Street. Racism is a vice which unfortunately exists till modern days not to speak of 100 years ago. The Whites of Tulsa were not happy with the flourishing Blacks of their city. Taking advantage of an alleged dishonoring of a white young girl by a black young man, riots were let loose. Though the young man was arrested and was put in the jail, the two communities came at daggers drawn. The Whites attacked the Greenwood Black Wall Street and the city administration was backing them. Hell was let loose for the aforesaid two days. About 300 Black Americans were killed. About 200 business entities were burnt down to ashes and 1200 houses were destroyed. Even churches were not spared. Firearms of different denominations were used. All the Black population of Greenwood had to be given shelter elsewhere. Many never returned. Those who did not have any alternative, had to remain and return later.

Authorities’ press and the men who mattered preferred to keep silent about such a massacre. But history cannot be hidden for long. The real story went down the generations of the victims first by word of mouth. For many years the authorities were in the denial mode. But eventually different enquiries unearthed the real story and the authorities have accepted the fact and apologies have been offered to the descendants of the victims. Different types of reparations have also been offered. Many organizations have also come up to observe the centenary of the grim Race Massacre. This will remind our present generation about the vices and outcome of apartheid/racism.

Even after the abolition of slavery the African Americans did not get equal rights overnight. Different ways and means like Peonage, Jim Crow laws and other methods of exploitation of the colored men and specially women continued.

Peonage was a system patronized by different States. Using this tool, States could let entrepreneurs take prisoners to work as virtual bonded labors by paying a nominal fee. It became a lucrative way of getting almost enslaved cheap labor force and used extensively in many States (specially in the South) by the big businesses run by white Americans. Those included mining, construction of railways, roads and factories. Black people were rounded up by the cops on flimsy grounds to serve the purpose of the white masters. This notorious system continued in some form or the other in different States till it was finally done away with in the 1940s. Another form of unequal treatment of the African Americans was the so called Jim Crow Laws. By these laws segregation of citizens were kept alive according to their colors in different spheres of life until the 1960s. We all remember Martin Luther King's famous speech "I have a Dream.' His dream of equal rights for all citizens of America resulted in the loss of his life in the hands of racist assassins. Finally we may say that equality of citizens of different colors came in the free continent after the passage of Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965 respectively that made all citizens of different colors, races and genders equal. Analysis of above pieces of history give us the impression that Juneteenth was only the beginning of the emancipation and equal rights of all races and the struggle for establishing equal rights took a century more. So, the colored citizens of the United States have a lot to celebrate on this Day and the Federal Government has rightly recognized it by declaring the celebration a Federal holiday.

Recently we have seen very encouraging gesture from high places. Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau has asked for apology when in a Canadian Residential School Campus few hundred skeletons of aboriginal children were found. They were allegedly victims of forced conversion. Similarly we have seen current US President Jo Biden publicly apologizing to Floyd's son on behalf of his countrymen while handing over a compensation cheque. Mr Floyd, a colored American was put to death, as we all know, by a white cop in broad daylight on the street. President Biden also said something soothing to the descendants of Tulsa Race Massacre victims as well last year appearing personally in Tulsa.

Unfortunately, racists are yet to be contained. On the 19th June this year, in Washington DC, a 15year old boy was shot at and killed during Juneteenth celebrations. We hope the US Government will take prompt actions to unearth the motive behind this shooting and find out the culprits for facing trial in appropriate courts.

The barbaric atrocities carried out in some countries as discussed above have been recognized though very late, apologies have been sought, reparations have been arranged and consciousness have been created. The war crimes and atrocities of the Nazi and other axis forces have been tried under Nuremberg, Tokyo and other tribunals. Much Genocide committed in different places of the world has been recognized and appropriate steps have been taken by authorities of the concerned countries and international community to prevent such occurrences in future. Yugoslavian, Rwandan and Cambodian Genocides are testimony to such Genocide trials. The Recent Rohingya Genocide by Myanmar authorities has also attracted the attention of US and other countries. Unfortunately, the 1971 Genocide by Pak army and their cronies on Bengalis have not yet been recognized. It is time that Bangladesh Government and Civil society organizations engage in concerted efforts to bring the issue up in all international forums to remind the world that the biggest Genocide that took place after the WW2 in Bangladesh still remains to be attended to. It has to be recognized, the perpetrators are to be brought to justice, the Genocide victims have to be properly compensated and the responsible authorities made to apologize formally for the war crimes and crimes against humanity as stipulated in the UN charter.

All incidents of genocide in the world have to be stopped for ever.


The writer is a columnist