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Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

We just passed the Juneteenth holiday and although it may be the holiday with the coolest name, I don’t think the history behind the holiday is well-known or well-understood. I would argue it is one of our most important holidays because it is a celebration of freedom for all Americans. It represents a turning point in the historical battle to transform America into a place where slavery and its residual legacy are not acceptable.

On June 19, 1865, news of emancipation reached the enslaved people in Texas. Union general Gordon Granger stood on a balcony in Galveston, Texas, and read the order that announced slavery was over. All slaves were free. This was more than two years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Confederate soldiers in Texas actually continued to fight in May 1865 even after General Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia in April.

You might wonder, how come there were so many enslaved people in Texas and how come they did not know about the Emancipation Proclamation? Texas was one of the eleven Confederate states and it was a slave state.

Settlers brought enslaved people to Texas to exploit them. They wanted to create a cotton-based slave economy like those in the other Southern states that had proved to be enormously profitable. After taking land from Native Americans, the settlers needed the labor of slaves to clear forests, tend the land, and plant crops. That work was seen to be too onerous for the settlers but appropriate for the enslaved.

Texas had ignored the Emancipation Proclamation which applied to all the Confederate states. Even after the Confederacy lost the Civil War, slave owners didn’t share that news with their slaves. They tried to keep the exploitation going as long as possible.

In spite of Texans’ braggadocio and their tendency toward self-praise because of its size, Texas has a dark history. During the Civil War, slave owners who feared the advance of Union troops moved west to Texas with their slaves to what they perceived as a relatively safe zone for slavery. Historians have estimated 150,000 as the number of slaves removed to Texas from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Ishmael Reed writes, “After the invasion of Pennsylvania in the American Civil War, the Confederates, mounted on horseback, marched children and their parents back to slavery, whether they were free or fugitive slaves.”

Maybe no war in American history needs more re-interpretation than the U.S. intervention in Mexico in the 1840s. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 when Texas was still part of that country. White slave-holding immigrants fought for independence and formed the Republic of Texas in 1836. They made slavery legal and it continued to be legal when Texas became a state in 1845. The Texas Constitution forbade the immigration of free Black people and no free person of African descent was permitted to reside permanently in Texas.

The battle of the Alamo in 1836 played a prominent role in Texas history. It is part of Texans’ heroic origin story but critical facts are avoided. Although Mexican General Santa Anna is depicted as a villain, it was the Mexicans who opposed slavery, not the defenders of the Alamo.

The U.S. invasion of Mexico was essentially an imperialist land grab. Many future Confederate leaders and generals including Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were part of the invasion force. The U.S. President James Polk, our 11th president, was a slaveowner who sought the annexation of Texas and he wanted to expand slavery to Mexico. While he was in the White House, Polk bought 19 enslaved people (13 were children) and he sent them to work on his Mississippi plantation.

It is little known that there was an Underground Railroad that went south to Mexico. Almost all accounts described the Underground Railroad as a northern trek to free states or Canada but there was a Southern route too that went to Mexico.

An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 enslaved people escaped from bondage into Mexico. Researchers say some went on foot, others rode horses and others snuck aboard ferries bound for Mexican ports. Because Mexico didn’t recognize slavery, it refused to return escaped slaves.

Maria Hammock, a historian who is writing a dissertation on the Southern route Underground Railroad writes, “There were clandestine routes and if you got caught you would be killed and lynched, so most people didn’t leave a lot of records.”

Juneteenth needs to be understood in the context of the continuing battle not just against slavery but for equality. When General Gordon Granger stated in his order “All slaves are free”, he also stated, “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

Nothing could have been more antithetical to the Confederate vision which was rooted in white supremacy. In spite of Juneteenth and the passage of the 13th Amendment, some enslavers remained unreconciled to the change and they continued to make their former slaves work for no pay. They used threats of violence as enforcement.

Former Confederates did not stop resisting after the Civil War. They tried to glamorize their history with the Lost Cause mythology and then they created a monstrous Jim Crow system. Donald Trump has kind words for General Robert E. Lee and Confederate monuments but that sympathy is entirely undeserved.

Juneteenth is about a vision of freedom for all Americans. It is a recognition of genuine progress and, as such, it is one of our most worthy holidays. Many holidays now seem like only an excuse for a three-day weekend. That is not the case with Juneteenth.