The Truth About Black FreedomRoundup
tags: African American history, emancipation, Juneteenth
Daina Ramey Berry is a professor of history and chairperson of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the co-author of A Black Women's History of the United States.
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.
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