Here’s a well kept secret. Galveston’s Freedmen were forced back into slavery hours after they were emancipated, according to nineteenth century news reports and records.
“About fifty negroes were this morning, taken by the Federals and sent under guard to work on the steamers to cut wood, and act as laborers generally.”Weekly State Gazette, Austin, Texas, June 28, 1865.
At first glance, the citing misleads when current news immediacy standards are applied. But consider this, the Gazette published this news nine days after receiving it from Galveston. It arrived via telegraph at 7 PM on June 19, 1865 the same day the (presumably) men were freed.
The potential hours of freedom for these fifty men are bound by two factors. The words, “this morning” suggest emancipation ended no later than at noon. The start time would be when General Order No. 3 was issued. How it was issued impacts how early it was issued. One thing is certain. There wasn’t much time for news to spread across the island.
An excerpt from Houston’s newspaper verifies the forced labor was not limited to those fifty men.
We hear that the Federal authorities at Galveston are bringing the Negroes to common sense in a summary manner. They call them up, one by one, and ask who they belong to. Those who tell the truth are sent home at once, while those who acknowledge no home or master are put to work on the streets, and on other labor, under the control of the military authorities.Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Houston, Texas, June 21, 1865
Use of present tense two days after emancipation affirms the round up of freedmen was continuous. Other relevant factors:
- Freedmen were expected to remain in place until the Freedmen’s Bureau arrived to prepare contracts.
- The bureau did not arrive until mid-September.
Independently, these four news items are relatively benign. Viewed collectively, this discomforting scenario surfaces:
Immediately after emancipation, Galveston’s Freedmen were rounded up, interrogated and sent “home” until the Freedmen’s Bureau arrived to secure contracts for them. Here’s the rub. Without contracts, employers (a.k.a., former owners) had no reason to pay the Freedmen while awaiting the Bureau’s arrival.
Furthermore, what are the odds that “employers” allowed Freedmen to lounge around for three months, eating free meals at the employer’s expense? Did you say zero? Hmm. Isn’t forced labor without pay the essence of slavery?
Could the Freedmen leave? Yes. Absolutely. But Freedmen in the nearest town (Houston) were under this general order:
The freedmen in and around the city of Houston are hereby directed to remain for the time being with their former owners… [A Freedmen Bureau agent] is expected here soon…Freedmen are advised to be patient and industrious. If found without employment or visible means of support, they will be put to labor cleaning the streets, without compensation.Colonel G. W. Clark’s General Order No. 3, Post of Houston, June 22, 1865
Clippings of the articles mentioned are imaged in Juneteenth University’s textbook: Juneteenth 101: Poplar Myths and Forgotten Facts, by D. J. Norman-Cox