‘The Grio Daily’: America didn’t free the slaves. The slaves freed America
OPINION: Michael Harriot reminds us not to get it twisted. More enslaved people freed themselves than the Emancipation Proclamation did. Check the receipts in the inaugural episode of "The Grio Daily."
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
TRANSCRIPT: Welcome to the first episode of The Grio Daily, the only podcast Black enough to debut on Juneteenth. I mean, after all, that’s kind of like when black people made their debut. Right? Right?
I’m Michael Harriot, world famous wypipologist, and this is The Grio Daily. So we’re going to be here every day, and we’re not going to be talking about the news as much as we’re going to be talking about the ideas from the news. We’re going to be here for you every morning to download wherever you get your podcasts (I hope it’s theGrio app), giving you and our village a daily dose of what you should be thinking and talking about today.
It’s not necessarily the news, right? It’s the ideas that we should be talking
about. We’re not going to be just regurgitating what happened in Washington or what
Kim Kardashian is doing. We’re going to be digesting and thinking deeply – and sometimes
funniliy – about what white people are doing, what black people should be doing, and
what America and the world is doing.
Today we’re going to be talking about, of course, Juneteenth. We can’t just start on
Juneteenth and not talk about Juneteenth. And specifically, we’re going to be talking about
is Juneteenth a Black holiday? You know I heard some white people say that
Juneteenth was the first black holiday. I don’t know what they thought MLK Day was,
but, you know, white people liked MLK, you know, after he died.
Is Juneteenth, a Black holiday? I mean, is July 4th, Independence Day, a white holiday? I mean, first of all, I just call it the 4th of July because we know it’s not really everybody’s independence day. I
mean, like most black people weren’t free on July 4th, 1776. And you know what? Here’s a
thing you probably didn’t know, or maybe you did. America’s birthday isn’t even July 4th, 1776.
We declared our independence on July 2nd, 1776. John Adams even wrote his wife and
said, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most epoch day in the history of America. I am apt to
believe it will be celebrated by the succeeding generations as the great anniversary
festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of
devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows
games, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other,
from this time forward, forevermore.”
And, you know, we never did it right, cuz, like they forgot. By the next year literally, they had forgot America’s birthday was on July 2nd. So they just chose, arbitrarily, July 4th. Although July 4th was the actual day that the Declaration of Independence got back from the printers because, you know, they didn’t have real good wi-fi back then.
And now it’s easy to Google Juneteenth and find out what it’s about. But it’s about when soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 and told the slaves that they were free. I mean, well kind of, right? Cuz you see like a lot of slaves were free already then. And, you know, like when they found out that they were gonna have to pick their own cotton, or whatever they grow in Texas – I mean what they grow? Guns? Cowboy hats? Cowboy boots? You know them white people was crying and the slaves were roasting the hell out of them.
But they should have been happy. Cuz here’s the thing that I believe, right? I don’t believe that
Juneteenth just freed the slaves because the slaves actually freed America. And that’s why
Juneteenth is a holiday for everybody, right? So let’s examine what I’m talking about.
So first of all, white people didn’t free the slaves. That’s just a fallacy. Like the
slaves freed themselves. Like up to 500,000 slaves freed themselves during the Civil War.
That’s more than the Emancipation Proclamation freed, which is, you know, zero, because it didn’t really mean anything. Texas only had about 200,000 enslaved people by the time they read the Juneteenth proclamation. You know, during the Civil War, when those slaves would free themselves, they would run toward the union line, right? And they say, “I’m free now, right?
And because of the concept of war, like, you can’t just, you know, take things and steal things from the people you’re fighting against. They created a special category for enslaved people who freed themselves, right? Because they were technically, you know, according to the Constitution, according to the laws of the United States, they were technically, you know, all those Confederates’ property. So, when they freed themselves and made it to the union lines, they became technically contraband.
And so all over America during the Civil War, there were these contraband camps filled with formerly enslaved people who had freed themselves. And there were more in those contraband
camps than there were who were freed on Juneteenth. So, don’t let them fool you that they
read something in Galveston, Texas, and then all of a slaves were free. Nah, they didn’t free the
slaves, right? And the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the slaves. The slaves were
actually freed, technically, by the 13th Amendment.
Now, what’s interesting about the 13th Amendment is like Congress had already passed the law that gave enslaved people rights. But, you know, Abraham Lincoln was dead. His vice president was real racist. And he vetoed that civil rights act because he said, and I quote, “The bill, in effect, proposes
a discrimination against large numbers of intelligent, worthy and patriotic foreigners (white people)
and in favor of the Negro, to whom, after long years of bondage, the avenues to freedom
and intelligence have just now been suddenly opened. He must, of necessity, from his
previous unfortunate condition of servitude, be less informed.”
After the slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment made them citizens. And the interesting thing about that is all over America, there were white people who benefited from that. See, before the slaves freed themselves, America had never defined citizenship. Like if you was a white person in South Carolina who was, you know, Eastern European, you might not be able to vote. So it was a bunch of different kind of people who had been disenfranchised, who couldn’t vote, who weren’t considered citizens, until the slaves freed themselves.
And the 14th Amendment gave America a definition of citizenship. Now we call it birthright citizenship. Now, if you’re born in America, you are a citizen. All of the enslaved people benefited from that. But a lot of white people did, too. It meant a lot of white people could vote, because, again, the slaves freed America. But that’s not the only thing, right?
In that 14th Amendment was a little clause called the due process clause. Now, you know, since America wrote its Constitution, they said there’s certain things you just can’t do to people, right? But it was reiterated and expanded in the 14th Amendment, right? There were certain things that you could not do to a person who was an American. You couldn’t violate their constitutional rights. You had to go through a process that is defined by the law before you strip them of their rights. Slaves gave that to America. You’re welcome.
And not just citizenship. Not just the due process clause. But for the first time we
said, “Hey, remember all those people, those different kinds of white people we were talking
about who couldn’t vote? Non-land owners? People from certain countries? For the first time,
they were able to vote because of the 15th amendment, which says you just can’t deny
somebody their right to vote because of their race, or their color, or their origin. We did that.
We gave that to y’all. We freed America.
And that ain’t event the only thing, right? During the Civil War, this man named Robert Smalls – first of all, he was like real smart. And he was working on a riverboat as an enslaved person. He was with some other black people who were working on that riverboat. And one night they told the Confederates who, you know, were in charge of the riverboat, “Hey, hey, can our
families come and visit us tonight? Y’all off, right? Like, I don’t know if y’all knew this, but they
got the weekends off doing the Civil War.
So anyway, Robert Smalls got him and his homeboys’ families to come visit him. You know, the Confederate white supremacist said it was okay, cuz, you know, I mean what they gone do? They slaves. What the hell are they gone do? But what they didn’t know is Robert Smalls had been watching them, and he had hid some of their uniforms. And they like, ‘Where my hat?’ “I don’t know, sir, it must be fell overboard.”
And so when they let the families of those enslaved peoples come visit, Robert and his
homeboys, Robert, dressed in those Confederate uniforms. And then he dressed his crew
in those Confederate uniforms. And as the families were on that riverboat, he had already
learned all of the passwords and the signals that the Confederate army used. And he drove that
thing right to the Union Army. And this made him a hero, right? I mean, amongst us, right?
Like the white people still wouldn’t give him, make him an officer until like years after the Civil
War. They wouldn’t make him, they wouldn’t give him a pension. But one thing happened,
right? Because he was a hero, and because (and many people don’t know this but South Carolina
was like majority black until like the 1940s) he was elected to Congress. And first, we have
to remember, they had to rewrite each state’s constitution. And Robert Smalls was on that
constitutional convention committee for South Carolina.
And you know what he put in there? He created the first compulsory public education system in America. But we don’t talk about that all the time. But because these slaves freed themselves, Robert Smalls specifically, he created the first compulsory, constitutionally-enshrined public education system in America. The reason all of the white people in America get public schools is
because of a Black, formerly-enslaved man who freed himself.
Again, white people didn’t free the slaves. The slaves freed themselves, and then they freed America.
Thank you for listening. We’ll be here every morning for you. And you know, I’m
going to end every day with a saying from Black America that you should feel in the depth
of your soul: You know, you can’t eat everybody macaroni.”
Thank you for listening. See you tomorrow.
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The Grio Daily Podcast is an original production brought to you by theGrio’s Black Podcast Network. Our show is produced by Richard White and edited and engineered by Justin Case Lone. Regina Griffin is our managing editor of podcasts.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.
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