Juneteenth: Why Were the Enslaved in Texas?

Band performing in Texas for Emancipation Day, 1900. Photograph Source: The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries – Public Domain

Juneteenth is named after June 19, 1865, when news of their emancipation reached enslaved people in Texas. None of the pundits who are commenting on the holiday ask why enslaved people were in Texas in the first place.

General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who fought Texas enslavers at the Alamo in 1836, is depicted in settler school books as a villain. No. Santa Anna was opposed to slavery. He found the practice disgusting. The defenders of the Alamo, some of whom ran away, were pro-slavery. As Phillip Thomas Tucker writes in his book “Exodus from the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth”: “Today we can no longer afford to ignore that the Alamo defenders were on the wrong side of the slavery issue, while the Mexicans were in the right.”

Stephen Austin and other American settlers brought enslaved people to Texas, “flouting the slavery restrictions” set by the Mexicans, who ruled Texas at the time. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829, and so, while the image of the fugitive slave is someone who escaped to the North and Canada, many fled to Mexico.

One could say that the origins of what should be called the American-Mexican War, since Americans were the aggressors, happened as a result of Americans acquiring land in Texas and bringing enslaved people with them.

Among the future Confederate generals who participated in the invasion of Mexico were Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. Their commander-in-chief was President James Polk, an enslaver who wanted to expand slavery to Mexico.

In my book, Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico, I recount Lee’s role at the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec. Badly outnumbered, Mexico’s General Bravo ordered a retreat. Six cadets, children between 10 and 19, refused the order. Those cadets who fought on were martyred. Rather than surrender, some of the children wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag and leaped to their deaths. They are called Los Niños in Mexican history. After the invasion of Pennsylvania in the American Civil War, the Confederates, mounted on horseback, marched children and their parents back to slavery, whether they were free or fugitive slaves.

These episodes run counter to the image of the Confederate generals in the U.S. textbooks. Noble fighters who, after graduating from West Point, reluctantly, tearfully, and, after much soul-searching, took up arms to defend their homeland, the version offered by Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” for which he was made an honorary member of the Sons of the Confederacy. There should be a restraining order to prevent Burns, Tom Hanks, and Stephen Spielberg from coming anywhere near American history. You can see Burns posing with one of the Koch brothers at the Bohemian Club, a kind of playpen for the patriarchal one percent.

Confederate generals massacred thousands of Native Americans and Mexicans before starting a war that caused more American deaths than those who died at the hands of the Japanese in World War II. So atrocious were their actions that a multicultural contingent, including Irish immigrants and Blacks, joined the Mexicans. Called the St. Patrick’s Battalion and led by John Riley, twelve were hanged.

The twenty percent of Black voters who are crazy about President Trump aren’t aware that their candidate praised Robert E. Lee. Still, thousands of Confederate soldiers showed their devotion to the general by going AWOL. One Confederate general commented, “If we got back half, we could win the war.”

His contemporaries accused Lee of losing the war. A cult of admirers mythologized him as the man of marble. Without his slaves, he was broke after the war. His admirers got him a job as president of Washington and Lee University. Robert E. Lee said that enslaved people needed “painful discipline.” Two slaves who ran away and were captured give history an example of how he administered it.

Quoted by the late Elizabeth Pryor in her “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee,” a slave gives us a scene in which Lee practiced his “painful discipline”:

He then ordered us to the barn, where in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to ‘lay it on well,’ an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.

Why would anybody want to erect a statue of a person capable of a sadistic act like this? Instead, doesn’t he belong in a horror movie or in a Poe short story? Fortunately, Elizabeth Pryor was part of a new mixed generation of Americans, black, white, red, yellow, and Latinx, who are taking down monuments that remind us of a shameful past, both the physical ones and those that appear in textbooks. If previous historians had told the truth instead of honoring slaveholders and those who wished to exterminate Native Americans, those monuments would never have been erected in the first place, and we wouldn’t have a generation of armed bigots defending them, which is why I’ve asked the American Historical Society to apologize for all of the harm these historians have done.

Among other statues coming down is one erected in front of Albany, N.Y., City Hall, to General Philip Schuyler, slave owner and Indian fighter. An evacuation of a site that held the remains of his slaves found that they were treated cruelly. Schuyler’s daughters Angelica, who owned a slave, and Elizabeth, who, even according to historian Ron Chernow, helped her mother “manage” the slaves, and Alexander Hamilton, who purchased slaves for the family, are peddled as abolitionists to thousands of children. They have been valorized due to their being refashioned by Broadway’s “Hamilton.”

Besides American school rooms, Broadway is another place where Black Lives Don’t Matter.

General Schuyler and his Dutch slave-owning friends’ agitation led to the execution of three black teenagers, two of whom were hanged before a bloodthirsty howling mob in 1793. They were accused of arson.

When Albany takes down Schuyler’s statue, statues should be erected in memory of these children. Lin Manuel Miranda, who cynically  poses with Black school children,the descendants of slaves, should insist upon it. He will be remembered as the man who kept slaveholder Hamilton’s picture on the ten-dollar bill.

Ishmael Reed’s new play “The Shine Challenge, 2024,” will receive a full production, from Dec,17-Jan 6, 2025, at Off-Off Broadway’s Theater for the New City.