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Friday, June 19, 2009

What I Never Learned in School about Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth, the day upon which the last Negro slaves were set free. I use the term “negro” because I am the last generation of the people called Negroes. It was the identity imprinted upon my birth certificate, but I thank God that I will die as an African-American.

Explaining the concept of a segregated school system to my 9-year old grandson is as futile as trying to explain why there is air. Utterly perplexed, he repeatedly asks: Why? Why did they have schools for blacks and schools for whites? It didn’t make sense.

His heritage is not the heritage of a Negro. He was born by mixed marriage and he has always considered himself an African-American. Jim Crow means absolutely nothing to him. There is nothing in his mind that can grasp the meaning of Race, let alone an understanding of Racism.

I doubt that his mother can properly teach him the history of Juneteenth, seeing that she is white, and the black holiday raises mixed feelings about her own ancestors and heritage. As they say in Texas, “Blood is thicker than water.” Dixie still loves Dixie, and simply because great-great-great-grandpa was a Confederate, does not mean she is going to hate him because he owned slaves.

More of us should be like child that asked: Why?

As an elementary school child, I never knew there were Colored soldiers in the Civil War. It took nearly a lifetime of work and demands for records and the unsealing of classified documents did we discover the existence of a large force of black troops who fought in the Civil War. And, during the 1950s, Texas had every reason in the world to keep this fact hidden from Negro children.

We heard the wild tales of black heroism in the Civil War handed down by the ole folks at Juneteenth picnics. It sounded like typical old Negro boasting. For it seemed to me that if we had played such a significant role in the Civil War, they would have put our ancestors into the history book.

In my essay, “Why the slaves in Texas were not set free until Juneteenth”, I sought to answer one of the questions that plagued me all my life. WHY did it take two-and-a-half years for the Proclamation to free the slaves in Texas?

On Emancipation Day, January 1, 1863, the Confederates staged a magnificent counteroffensive against the Federal forces. First, Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder retook the port city of Galveston, Texas. Second, a new Texas Division was formed under the command of Maj. Gen. John George Walker.

Walker's Division contained three brigades commanded by Brigadier Generals Henry E, McCulloch, Hawes and Horace Randal. The plan was for McCulloch to attack Milliken’s Bend, J. M. Hawes to attack Young's Point, several miles downstream from Milliken's Bend, and Randal to remain in reserve in Richmond.

Left to defend Gen. Ulysses S. Grant storehouse at Milliken's Bend were 1,250 newly recruited Colored Regiments---The First Mississippi (African Descent) and the Ninth and Eleventh Louisiana (Corps d Afrique, or African Corps) and two companies of the 10th Illinois Cavalry, under the command of U.S. Col. Hermann Lieb.

At stake in the contest: A Union victory at Vicksburg would essentially give Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant control of the Mississippi River, and cut off the Confederacy West of the Mississippi from its capitol in Richmond, Virginia and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Sunday morning, June 7, 1863, while nearing Milliken’s Bend, the Texas regiments encountered fire from Union troops. Col. Richard Waterhouse's 19th Texas Infantry was deployed to the right, Col. R. T. P. Allen's 17th Texas Infantry in the center, and Lt. Col. E.P. Gregg's 16th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) on the left, while Col. George Flournoy's 16th Texas Infantry was held in reserve.

Confederate Gen. H.E. McCulloch described the battle: “The line was formed under a heavy fire from the enemy, and the troops charged the breastworks, carrying it instantly, killing and wounding many of the enemy by their deadly fire, as well as the bayonet. This charge was resisted by the negro portion of the enemy's force with considerable obstinacy, while the white or true Yankee portion ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered.”

JUNE 7, 1863
The enemy attacked Milliken's Bend; commenced driving the negro regiments, and killed all they captured. This infuriated the negroes, who turned on the rebels and slaughtered them like sheep, and captured 200 prisoners. I also hear they captured five pieces of artillery. The Choctaw and Lexington were there--- DAVID D. PORTER, Admiral

“…the rebels drove our force toward the gun-boats, taking colored men prisoners and murdering them. This so enraged them that they rallied and charged the enemy more heroically and desperately than has been recorded during the war. It was a genuine bayonet charge, a hand-to-hand fight, that has never occurred to any extent during this prolonged conflict. Upon both sides men were killed with the butts of muskets. White and black men were lying side by side, pierced by bayonets, and in some instances transfixed to the earth. In one instance, two men—one white and the other black—were found dead, side by side, each having the other's bayonet through his body. If facts prove to be what they are now represented, this engagement of Sunday morning will be recorded as the most desperate of this war. Broken limbs, broken heads, the mangling of bodies, all prove that it was a contest between enraged men; on the one side from hatred to a race, and on the other, desire for self-preservation, revenge for past grievances, and the inhuman murder of their comrades.” Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1863

It is understandably why the Battle of Milliken’s Bend would not be featured in Texas History books. But excluded also was the history of the U.S.Colored Troops who fought at Appomattox and were a principal force in cutting off Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreat and forcing him to surrender to Gen. Grant on April 9, 1865.

Thinking the war was over, Sgt. Maj. William McCeslin, 29th U.S.C.T. issued this ultimatum: “We, the colored soldiers, have fairly won our rights by loyalty and bravery -- shall we obtain them? If we are refused now, we shall demand them.” (Source: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park)

Confederate President Jefferson Davis abandoned Richmond before it was captured by Union forces on April 3, 1865. He met with his Cabinet and dissolved the Confederacy while in-flight, and was subsequently captured on May 10, 1865 in Irwin County, Georgia.

Six days after Lee’s surrender, on April 15, 1865, Republican President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Democrat Andrew Johnson became President.

The town of Marshall, Texas was made the capital of Missouri's Confederate government-in-exile and flew the flag of Missouri in addition to the other six flags and was, therefore, nickname as the City of Seven Flags. It had become the seat of civil authority and headquarters of the Trans-Mississippi Postal Department after the fall of Vicksburg.

The fifth flag over Texas was the CSA Naval Jack, which flew from 1863-1865. When Negro students arrived at Arlington State College in 1961, this was the flag at the top of the flagpole on campus. Below it flew the fourth flag belonging to the Republic of Texas which flew from 1836 to 1845. Missing was the sixth flag of the United States of America, which flew from 1845 to 1861 and from 1865 to the present.

Technically, the confederacy of Texas was never defeated. It collapsed upon itself. (See

A black-led student protest from 1965 to 1967 would bring Ole Dixie Down on the campus of ASC and would end the school’s Confederate tradition of Old South Week. A coalition of students won the vote that placed the school under the University of Texas system. Today, Arlington State College is the University of Texas at Arlington.

If there is one reflection, I remember we went into college as Negroes, but emerged as liberated African-Americans.

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