A Kerry James Marshall painting of two Black children coming down a road, one on a bike and the other on foot
Kerry James Marshall, "Our Town," 1995 (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London)

The Truth About Black Freedom

This year’s Juneteenth commemorations must take a deeper look at the history of Black self-liberation to understand what emancipation really means—and how far the country still has to go.

Two centuries ago, a woman named Esther claimed her freedom. The enslaved woman filed a suit against her enslaver, Bernard H. Buckner, on behalf of herself and her two children in federal court. In 1827, Buckner had intended to move the family to his new home in the District of Columbia, but had neglected to heed a local law requiring him to relocate them within a year of establishing residency. It was a technicality, part of a law designed to stop the importation of enslaved people into the capital. But Esther knew the law, and kept track of each of the 365 days that needed to pass before her bondage would be invalidated. Esther acted swiftly and audaciously. She sued.

Her representation was a Maryland lawyer with a famous name and a fraught history: Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key owned people himself, and was a prominent proponent of sending emancipated Black people back to Africa. But there in the courtroom, he was committed to Esther’s defense. He instructed the members of the jury to read the letter of the law. They granted Esther’s petition, and she and her two children were immediately set free.

Esther’s story sounds remarkable, but in the larger story of slavery in the Americas, it was not an anomaly. In fact, over multiple centuries, in every period of history, enslaved people received, took, filed, fled, reclaimed, and sued for their freedom. They led strikes and revolts in the fields, defied the enslavers in song and worship, and escaped to build their own settlements. They continually rejected their legal status and fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But today, when Americans think about freedom, we often focus on the moments when it was granted or guaranteed by the government: moments such as the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Now Juneteenth—the holiday commemorating the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were informed of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of their tentative freedom—has become a symbol for this granting of freedom to Black people by the United States. But the truth is that Juneteenth is a celebration of just one way that Black people either created freedom or found it, often on their own terms. What we acknowledge this Juneteenth must be about more than what was given. It must be about what had already been claimed.

Enslaved people were always the first givers of their own liberty. They did not wait idly for proclamations and decrees. They stole fragments of liberty and created spaces of freedom within the institution of slavery, even before they were ever legally “free.” They put down their rakes and hoes and rested on beds of hay; they stole afternoon naps while hanging tobacco; they held nighttime parties to dance away their pain, and they held prayer meetings in the woods to nourish their spirits with hope.

They navigated life and faced death with liberty in their hearts. When their water broke, some pregnant women fled to caves to give birth, to allow their newborns to enter the world in freedom. Some mothers, like Esther, used the law to secure their children’s freedom. The enslaved sought some measure of liberty everywhere they could, even in modes as intimate and personal as their choice of clothes. On May 8, 1937, formerly enslaved Adeline Willis of Georgia bragged to an interviewer from the Federal Writers’ Project about the hickory-striped dress she wore that had brass buttons on the wrists: “I was so proud of that dress and felt so dressed up in it I just strutted er round with it.”

There were many over the decades who risked their lives to free themselves. Upon his escape through alligator-infested rivers in Florida to freedom in New York and then England, Moses Roper had mixed feelings because his family was left in slavery: “But I must remark, that my feelings of happiness at having escaped from cruel bondage, are not unmixed with sorrow of a very touching kind.” As more and more enslaved people like Roper freed themselves and escaped to the North, they exerted their political weight, flouting “fugitive slave” legislation and encouraging other enslaved people to escape and revolt. At an 1850 meeting of “fugitives from slavery and their friends” in Cazenovia, New York, delegates sent a message to the enslaved. They reported on receiving wages for their labor and plenty of “opportunities to hear and to learn to read the Bible … which is all for freedom, notwithstanding the lying slaveholders who say it is all for slavery.”

This two-day abolitionist meeting, held August 21 and 22, was organized partly in response to the proposed fugitive-slave law that put all of the country’s citizens—even those in “free states”—on notice for aiding or harboring those who escaped slavery’s yoke. The gathering included as many as 50 self-liberated people. They’d made it to free territory by foot, carriage, steamboat, schooner, and train. Newspaper advertisements referred to them as “fugitives” or “runaways,” labels that granted legitimacy to their enslavement, and attempted to invalidate their radical actions. Rather, their emancipation reflected a level of agency—a public showing of their personhood—and for them, escape was not a crime.

A grainy black and white photo of the convention with people standing around, including Frederick Douglass, Gerritt Smith, Mary Edmonson, George W. Clarke, Theodosia Gilbert, Emily Edmonson, and James Caleb Jackson
The 1850 convention in Cazenovia included as many as 50 self-liberated people. Attendees shown here include Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Mary Edmonson, George W. Clark, Theodosia Gilbert, Emily Edmonson, and James Caleb Jackson. (Madison County Historical Society)

Attendees at the 1850 New York gathering conducted the usual business: established committees, appointed leaders, and voted on resolutions. Frederick Douglass became their president. They contributed to jail fees of those arrested for aiding freedom-seekers, and heard testimonies from the self-liberated. Mary and Emily Edmonson, who were among the 77 enslaved people who’d tried to escape on a schooner called the Pearl two years earlier, spoke about their experience. Jermain Wesley Loguen, who’d secured his freedom and become a minister and leader in Syracuse, New York, spoke passionately on behalf of his fellow self-liberators.

They published “A Letter to the American Slaves From Those Who Have Fled From American Slavery” in Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star. They cautioned enslaved people that some who call themselves abolitionists were in fact “grossly inconsistent” and went so far as to support pro-slavery legislation. In their closing thought, they assured enslaved people that they would never forget them: “You are ever in our minds, our hearts, and our prayers.” It is unclear how many enslaved people in the South ever read their warnings, but these words were intended to destabilize slavery, to make bondage more costly for the enslavers through passive and active resistance, and to plant the idea that freedom was a right, not a privilege to be granted.

Across every inch of slavery’s domain, enslaved people had acted in that spirit of destabilizing slavery, through whatever methods they could find. Sojourner Truth walked into freedom with an infant in her arms; Harriet Jacobs hid in a crawl space for seven years until she could become free; Ellen Craft dressed as male and passed as white; Lear Green shipped herself to freedom in a box. Like Craft, Green did not want to start a family while enslaved. So she packaged herself in a sailor’s trunk smaller than a coffin and traveled with her future mother-in-law on a steamer with a quilt, a pillow, and some food and water. Aided by a network of collaborators, she made it to Philadelphia, and there was welcomed by the famous Black abolitionist William Still.

Networks like the Underground Railroad and people such as Still, Harriet Tubman, and Loguen made freedom possible for thousands. Loguen, who was at the 1850 convention, established his network in Syracuse through his ministry in the AME Zion Church. He worked with other abolitionists to purchase large tracts of land in upstate New York, where many self-liberated people settled. Some say he helped 1,500 people become free. In 1860, Loguen’s former captor, Sarah Logue, wrote to him and said “the situation we are in—partly in consequence of your running away,” had forced her and her husband to sell Loguen’s siblings Abe and Ann. Demanding his return or $1,000 and payment for the horse that he left with, she reminded him that she’d reared him as she’d reared her own children. Loguen’s response was sharp: “Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping-post? Did you raise them to be drove off in a coffle in chains?”

In their 1850 letter, the abolitionists took great care to describe the pain and difficulty of escape. “We know your sufferings and we know your sufferings because we know from experience, what it is to be an American slave,” they explained. Slavery was so hellish “that, to escape from it, we suffered the loss of all things, and braved every peril, and endured every hardship.” Escape meant a cruel separation from the people they loved. “Some of us left parents, some wives, some children,” they wrote. “Some of us were wounded with guns and dogs, as we fled.” But the desire for freedom was so great that they were willing to be “nailed up in boxes … to pass for merchandise.” They hid “in the suffocating holds of ships.” The desire for freedom was worth risking their lives, leaving their families, and placing themselves in the most compromising positions imaginable. As they explained it, to be captured and returned to slavery “would be but to return to our old sufferings and sorrows.” And death would “be but a welcome release to men, who had, all their lifetime, been killed every day, and ‘killed all the day long.’”

Fifteen years later, with the concerted efforts of self-emancipated Black people, still-enslaved people, abolitionists, white allies, and the force of the Union Army, slavery finally came to a legal end. Word of the end of the war and emancipation in the South took a while to reach all the corners of the country. Thus, when the enslaved people in Texas learned of their “official” freedom on June 19, 1865, they reacted with great joy. They put down their hoes, rakes, and sickles; left the kitchen, smokehouse, and laundry yard; and went to live in freedom. Some paraded in the streets. Others solidified their unions and got married. Thousands went to school and participated in politics. Hence, every year in Texas, starting in 1866, Black people celebrated Juneteenth.

The early festivals always involved speeches from formerly enslaved people, so that the younger generation would not forget about the significance and meaning of freedom. They cherished their hard-earned liberty. They held parades, danced, and read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation. Across the country, Black communities chose their own dates of jubilee—either Juneteenth or a date when local laws ended slavery—and engaged in remarkably similar celebrations. On December 31, Black churches throughout the United States celebrate “Freedom’s Eve” and host Watch Night services commemorating the date the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, January 1, 1863. On April 16, Washington, D.C., residents celebrate the end of slavery in the District through the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862. Many of these celebrations center on the things Black people yearned to do while enslaved, the things they risked death to achieve decade after decade, and the realities of a freedom they know is their inalienable right. Even after the institution of slavery was abolished, these celebrations still embodied defiance, and the claim to something that can never truly be granted.

Modern celebrations that began as a state holiday in Texas in 1980 are now becoming popular across the country. Currently, 49 states observe Juneteenth celebrations, and an increasing number of states have joined Texas and adopted Juneteenth as an official holiday. Yesterday, President Biden signed into law a remarkable bill that makes Juneteenth a federal holiday. But what is the meaning of Juneteenth that so many have embraced?

Until recently, most people might have said that Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” freed the slaves, or that the Civil War did so, or that Congress did so with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. They might date the end of slavery even later, perhaps to the 1866 treaties abolishing slavery in Native American territories, or the federal ban on forced debt peonage in 1867. But this is only half of the truth. As the historical record shows, Black people continuously claimed their freedom, in every historical moment, always preceding and precipitating movements by governments, institutions, and corporations.

This country has consistently failed to recognize their claim. The descendants of self-liberated people work hard to blend into society, to find good-paying work, to become educated, and to contribute as citizens to a country that enslaved their ancestors for at least 12 generations. In the aftermath of slavery, overseers became officers, enslavers became bosses, and Jim Crow bound formerly enslaved people to the very landlords who had previously claimed them as their property. Just as they shook the shackles off their feet, Black women went back into white homes to perform the same domestic labor they’d done when enslaved. Literacy tests and poll taxes compromised voting rights, and the lynch law sent Black people swinging from trees at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and angry white mobs.

Black people are still fighting. They are fighting for the right to vote, as laws seemingly designed to counter Black turnout proliferate across the country. They are fighting for histories and curricula that acknowledge the legacy of white supremacy in the face of a backlash against what conservatives call “critical race theory.” In essence, they stand in the same position as Esther—taking action to protect their futures and the futures of their descendants, and hoping that the law and its enforcers catch up. Black people created what we might call freedom in America today. That is the story we celebrate and uplift on this holiday.

Watch: A conversation with “Inheritance” writers about the legacy of Juneteenth, in partnership with Sixth & I