Recent Insights into Juneteenth, the J19 Family, and Black History
by Richard D. Navies II
Recently, a Bro on a local radio program said something that really had me thinking. When asked if his family celebrated Juneteenth as a child, he responded,” No, my Great Great Grandfather was from Virginia and they were actually “freed” when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, so we had a different freedom story to celebrate”. Apparently, slaveholders in Virginia didn’t have too many options due to their defeat in the Civil War and their proximity to the Nation’s Capital. It was near impossible for Virginia’s defeated slaveholders to maintain slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation. His point was that his family had a different experience with the Emancipation Proclamation, a story entirely different than those Africans who were enslaved in Galveston, Texas. The discussion helped me realize how my father actually adopted the June 19th Emancipation story of our brothers and sisters in Texas as our own. When we celebrated Juneteenth, we acknowledged an alternative Independence Day. We explicitly rejected full participation in a sham fourth of July celebration which only served to “make a mockery” of our people. The historical record is clear, a majority of African Americans were firmly entrenched in the grip of chattel slavery on the 4th of July 1776. “What to the slave is your fourth of July?”, indeed. * I mean, it was always a blast playing around with fireworks as a child, but we’ve known for a while that those freedoms gained by many Americans as a result of the Revolutionary War were not extended to Black people. By universalizing the experience of Black folks enslaved in Texas, we were able to gain inspiration for our daily struggles. Juneteenth gave us the opportunity to strengthen ourselves through participation in a powerful group ritual. Implicit in our adaptation of this alternative Independence was also the bold refusal to embrace every part of America. By celebrating Juneteenth, we have asserted that our stories matter despite our nation’s attempts to hide us in the kitchen! The enslavement of our people by the founders of this country should never be forgotten. Undoubtedly, this nation would not exist as it is without centuries of labor stolen from African Americans trapped in chattel slavery.
But the brother’s comment got me thinking…, just what are the emancipation stories of our direct ancestors? Amazingly, my historian father had no idea that his Great-Great-Grandfather, George Washington Carter had been free before the Civil War and had been a successful businessman, who was also a leader on the Underground Railroad in New Albany, Indiana. George W. Carter had two sons, Hannibal and Edward Carter, who fought in the Civil War as two of the first African American enlisted officers in these United States. Captain Edward Carter fought in, and was gravely injured, in the well-known Battle of Port Hudson. He survived what must have been a hellacious experience and was able to meet, marry, and mate Mary Victoria Hunt. They would have 3 sons- one of them, Hannibal Cleveland Carter, had a daughter named Rose Lucille Carter, she had a son named Richard Darrell Navies-the man whose work you are acknowledging today.
I wonder if my father would have felt differently if he knew about this part of our family history? These ancestors were a part of a community of free Blacks well before the Emancipation Proclamation. The men of the famed “Corps d’Afrique” must have been something to behold! Educated, armed Black men, many from land owning families, who dared to put themselves on equal footing with whites. Recent research reveals that they both left the Union Army around 1863 over a dispute with white Officers possibly related to protest over unequal pay. Amazingly, our ancestors would have likely marched with General Granger if they had remained in the Military. In fact, the very same unit was with General Granger when Union troops finally reached Texas to enforce the proclamation issued by Lincoln. Thinking about it now, maybe the Carter men left the military for reasons besides white officer resentment and the lack of equal pay? Could it be that they left after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, seeing it as a clear bellwether for the young nation? Perhaps they felt that it was time to position themselves for an end to the Civil War, for the unrest they had to know was coming. It’s speculative, but one can imagine such men taking advantage of the strategic positioning of Union troops in order to acquire property and political power-two critical elements of American citizenship. I can’t help but wonder, what were these Civil War veterans doing during the first Juneteenth? We now know that, for them, this was no sudden jubilation call, no unexpected Trumpeting of Freedom from a guilty Nation. Instead, it was the result of countless bloody battles against the brutal enslavement of African Americans. Black men like Edward and Hannibal saved the North from defeat. So, I can imagine when they heard about General Granger’s mission, they checked their powder, food supply, horses and such. They probably looked about for allies in the struggle that they had to know was nowhere near ending. We know that in the years after, they ran for and held political office, built businesses, and fought off violent attacks by the KKK, among other things. I feel like their struggles, the strategic moves they made, despite being over 150 years ago, can provide useful perspective for our times. The fact that my father, a Black history educator and pioneer in the Black Studies Movement, knew little about his ancestor’s direct participation in the Civil War, is a sign that we all have more work to do. We have more work to do in uncovering the myriad ways that African Americans have molded and shaped this Nation. We must continue to document our American story; we must continue the struggle to make this Nation live up to its high ideals. Carrying on the tradition of Juneteenth is one way we can ensure that the history of our ancestor’s sacrifices are neither forgotten nor taken for granted.