May 23, a Fitting Anniversary to Mark Slavery's End
Respect for black agency requires replacing obsolete Juneteenth
Steven T. Corneliussen
March 2017
 
Early in “Disunion,” the New York Times's online Civil War sesquicentennial essay and discussion series, the historian Adam Goodheart remarked that for a century and a half, “white Northerners and Southerners maintained a sort of tacit pact to minimize slavery’s role” in the war. Early in the Washington Post's sesquicentennial forum, historian Edward L. Ayers, now University of Richmond president emeritus, also recognized the de facto invisibility of slavery in Civil War civic memory. “We will need to broaden our understanding,” he advised, “to include the determination of black people to become free from the first moments of the conflict.” And indeed public reconsideration during the sesquicentennial vividly illuminated both slavery's end and, for ending it, enslaved African Americans' agency—their own independently exerted power. Now Harriet Tubman's image on the twenty-dollar bill expresses popular esteem for an enterprising slavery-era freedom striver. But national memory also needs an annual commemoration day specifically for the shutdown of the quarter-millennium-long national crime of slavery—and for the black agency in that shutdown's belated, balky, but blessed affirmation of the country's founding human-rights ideas. Mainly by extrapolating from scholars' public comments, I nominate an anniversary that was mostly unnoticed until the sesquicentennial reconsideration: May 23.
 
Candidate anniversaries
 
Another candidate anniversary—June 19, known as Juneteenth—is recognized in at least 44 states. On that happy day in 1865, ten weeks after Appomattox, an emancipation announcement reached enslaved people waiting passively in Texas, exerting no agency.
 
In a 2013 commentary promoting Juneteenth, the Harvard scholar and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. listed other possible anniversaries for slavery's end: dates linked to the preliminary and actual emancipation proclamations, to the 13th Amendment, and to Union victories. He also cited the Fourth of July, alluded to in the Gettysburg Address, but he noted Frederick Douglass's 1852 objection: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”
 
Gates never mentioned May 23, the date highlighted in the opening of Goodheart's 2011 New York Times magazine article “How Slavery Really Ended in America.” Goodheart's first sentence said, “On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel.” That citadel was Fort Monroe's moated stone fortress (sometimes itself called Fort Monroe). History came to Fort Monroe, Goodheart wrote, “not amid the thunder of guns and the clash of fleets, but stealthily, under cover of darkness.” He pointed out that this place where slavery escapees Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend sought refuge was also where the first captive Africans had landed en route to Jamestown in 1619.
 
But Gates, in the 2014 commentary “The Black Roots of Memorial Day,” not only mentioned May 23, he highlighted it—while this time never mentioning Juneteenth. Gates discerns a Memorial Day connection in the events that Baker, Mallory, and Townsend set into motion. In a 2011 interview, Ayers called those events “the greatest moment in American history.” That moment’s story isn't about enslaved people waiting passively, as in Texas on June 19 more than four years later. It's about enterprising, self-emancipating slavery escapees acting with distinct agency to reach for freedom, and doing so only six weeks into the war.
 
Gates argued that besides honoring Americans who sacrificed their lives in war, each May's final Monday should commemorate “the unofficial start of emancipation, or at least the beginning of the end of slavery” in the Civil War's earliest days. “Emancipation’s connection to Memorial Day [began] on the night of May 23, 1861,” he wrote, when the three “heroes of Freedom’s Fort...helped elevate the Civil War’s meaning in advance of the first Memorial Day.” The three “unofficially ignited” the movement of enslaved Americans “emancipating themselves with their feet...which would extend the aim of the war from maintaining the Union at all costs to a war for union and the freedom of the slaves.” Gates stressed the importance of seeing such Americans “as pivotal in their own emancipation rather than passive recipients bowing in the marble friezes of history.” He declared a strong belief “that it is time for us to claim [them] as veterans of the struggle for freedom and as heroes to be honored on...Memorial Day.”
 
Memorial Day? Even given black warriors' important contributions to the Union cause, why hitch a ride on Memorial Day when enterprising self-emancipators unambiguously began Ayers's “greatest moment in American history” on May 23?
 
May 23
 
In “Disunion” in 2011, Goodheart observed that few Americans have heard of Fort Monroe even though it could rank alongside Plymouth Rock and Gettysburg. “There are few places in America,” he proposed, “where the full sweep of our nation’s past—from tragedy to triumph—[is] more palpable and immediate than on this small, fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.” Fort Monroe “stands where African-American slavery began—and also, in a sense, where it ended.”
 
Goodheart also called Fort Monroe the place where “slavery received its deathblow, as the first black fugitives of the Civil War began pouring into Union lines, a small trickle that soon became a mighty river.” Their “bold escape,” he declared, “perhaps even more than Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation more than a year later, was responsible for slavery’s extinction.” That's why he later also ranked Fort Monroe with the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. He quoted Kenneth Salazar, then secretary of the interior, the government department that includes the National Park Service: “I can’t think of a place that has more national historical significance.” At time 19:49 in a 27-minute Fort Monroe documentary by Norfolk PBS station WHRO, National Trust for Historic Preservation official Robert Nieweg ranked Fort Monroe with Monticello and Mount Vernon.
 
Others have joined Goodheart in emphasizing the “mighty river” of slavery escapees. In a New York Times op-ed, historian Kate Masur criticized the movie Lincoln for portraying blacks as passively waiting to be liberated even though they themselves were “crucial agents” in shutting slavery down. In a Times letter, the Pulitzer-holding historian Eric Foner wrote, “From the beginning of the Civil War, by escaping to Union lines, blacks forced the fate of slavery onto the national political agenda.” To use Gates's phrase, they weren't merely “passive recipients bowing in the marble friezes of history.”
 
In Virginia, some officials, journalists, and others still assert May 24 as the story's starting date and Fort Monroe's commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, as the key figure—often without bothering even to name Baker, Mallory, and Townsend. In an analogy that has obvious flaws but some punch nevertheless, that perverse imbalance in civic memory resembles telling the story of major league baseball's integration by mythologizing baseball executive Branch Rickey while leaving Jackie Robinson unnamed. Even the Virginia civil rights leader Andrew Shannon, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, cited Butler but not the self-emancipators in a 2016 letter to the editor. That interpretation aligns with the outlook of a 2012 “Disunion” essay by legal historian Paul Finkelman, who traced emancipation back through “a long string of high-profile emancipatory steps by the federal government” to a supposed first political cause: Butler's May 24 “refusal to return fugitive slaves to their Confederate masters on the theory that they were 'contrabands of war.'”
 
Leaving aside the issue of denigrating slavery escapees as mere “fugitive slaves” and elevating slaveholders with the loaded old term “masters,” Butler's famous “contraband decision” wasn't the first vital decision in the history moment that began on May 23. The decisions to escape were. On May 24, Fort Monroe's surprised commander reacted—not acted, but reacted—to forthright actions asserted the day before by Baker, Mallory, and Townsend. His decision was clever, constructive, and second. The self-emancipators made the first decisions. Whatever is to be said about who first recognized the potential in radically changed national political circumstances after Fort Sumter, it was self-emancipators who first acted. They were the first to press the new civil war's transformation into a struggle for freedom. One by one, with no politicians or abolitionists whispering “Freedom!” into their ears, but acting only under the laws of nature and of nature's god, they took the risk. In effect if not intention, they challenged the Union finally to begin living up, however haltingly and imperfectly, to its founding principles. Why do 44 states formally remember passive 1865 recipients of emancipation news rather than these world-changing freedom strivers?
 
It's true that Fort Monroe's surprised commander could have said no. After all, other slavery escapees elsewhere had already tried for sanctuary, only to be turned away. But consider an observation by the historian David W. Blight from an essay for the Times-originated 2013 book Disunion: “Through 1861 and into 1862, the Union Army operated with an official policy of exclusion (what it called “denial of asylum”), turning away fugitive slaves who reached the front lines. The official purpose for the war was to restore the Union, not to uproot slavery. But events steadily overtook this unworkable plan.”
 
Of course it was unworkable. Blight quotes the Ohio abolitionist congressman Joshua Giddings, who declared in April 1861, as have others since, that the “first gun fired at Fort Sumter rang out the death-knell of slavery.” Nothing—to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson—was more certainly written in the book of fate than that enslaved Americans were to be free. Self-emancipators weren't citizens, but they were Americans, and they knew it. Do we?
 
Invisibility
 
The exact words of that Thomas Jefferson quotation are: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” The final word is free, but at the New York Times, where careful editors and knowledgeable historians vetted “Disunion” series essays, one by William W. Freehling included the statement that Jefferson saw “nothing…more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be freed.”
 
“Freed”? Maybe by the agency of others? “Freed” as feckless, passive, helpless victims? “Freed” by politicians deigning belatedly, after a quarter of a millennium, to stop blocking the unalienable human rights famously extolled more than four score years before the Civil War? Finkelman says that in the 15 months following May 23, 1861, perhaps 100,000 slavery escapees gained safe haven under Union protection. Gates says that historians estimate that about 500,000 out of 3.9 million enslaved people “liberated themselves by escaping to Union lines between 1863 and the end of the war.” That's more than one in eight. It's true that in important senses, it was proclamations, amendments, and, of course, Union forces that “freed” them. But it was the self-liberators who acted first. What exactly was written about them, and about their agency, in that book of fate?
 
Maybe “freed” was just a typo. But consider how easy it has been to find black people and their agency seen—actually, unseen—as invisible. That invisibility tells a lot about why May 23 was overlooked for so long.
 
In a New York Times book review, Foner addressed it:
QUOTE
At one point [the author] remarks that “blacks’ impact remains the most overlooked cause of the Civil War.” Without runaways seeking liberty there would have been no political crisis over fugitive slaves. Without one slave’s suit for freedom, there would have been no Dred Scott decision. But [the author] never returns to this striking insight, partly because his emphasis on stories involving political actors leaves little room for the slaves. The men, women and children over whose fate political battles raged and who, in fact, made up a majority of South Carolina’s population, remain largely invisible in this account of the road to disunion.
UNQUOTE
 
Goodheart has pointed out the specific former invisibility of American history's May 23 moment: “By the time Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” he wrote, “African-Americans’ liberation was, to some degree, a fait accompli. His private secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay later called the escape of Mallory, Baker and Townsend one of the pivotal moments of the entire Civil War.” That initially undetected fait accompli remained invisible. “For a century and a half,” Goodheart continued, “the story of the three men—and of the thousands of African Americans who followed in their footsteps—was largely forgotten.”
 
Little wonder. In important senses well known to most people, black invisibility has always persisted, as illustrated by selections from a huge number of examples: In the early 1960s, the Civil War centennial focused mostly on battles and valor. By 2010 not much had changed; a Virginia governor issued a Civil War proclamation that mentioned neither blacks nor slavery. In early 2017, a prominent US politician publicly recognized Black History Month not by citing any black people, but by recalling President Lincoln and the 13th Amendment. Weeks later, the Washington Post columnist Colbert King recalled growing up black in Washington, D.C.: “It was a world that taught us, through history books and popular culture, that black people had no history worth knowing; that we were barely part of America’s past; that we had no traditions, no literature, no intellect. It was a world that told us we deserved to be ignored.”
 
King's piece appeared not long after Gates's New York Times op-ed “History the Slaveholders Wanted Us to Forget.” “Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us,” Gates wrote, “that ideas about Africans and their supposed lack of history and culture were used to justify the enslavement of millions of Africans throughout the New World… . What is surprising is that these ideas persisted well into the 20th century, among white and black Americans alike.”
 
That disrespectful scanting calls to mind the accusation leveled by the nameless black narrator of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man: People see “only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
 
In a February 2017 History News Network essay, historian Michael Hogan described what gets seen when black slavery-era agency remains unseen:
QUOTE
African-American students have been taught for decades that their freedom today is due entirely to the agency of a charismatic white man who occupied the White House from 1861-1865 and, through his benevolence, loosened the chains of their forebears. It is a lesson in passivity. It is a lesson that instills no pride in black students, and undermines the sense of responsible citizenship which most good teachers want to inculcate. Moreover, the narrative is incomplete, misleading, and fundamentally wrong. The truth is that black Americans fought for their freedom and did so repeatedly and successfully. But that narrative has been systematically excised from most general histories of the United States, and those few African-American historians who have mentioned it, are barely acknowledged.
UNQUOTE
 
Hogan scanted the self-emancipators to focus on the freedom agency of formerly enslaved Union soldiers. But something else that's mostly invisible is what Blight, in the essay “The Civil War and Emancipation,” called “the volition of the slaves themselves in seizing their chances and paths to freedom.” Goodheart sees as “most important” the “revolution in the minds of the slaves themselves.” One visitor to Fort Monroe, Goodheart reports, saw slavery escapees as “spinning, unknown to all, the destinies of the great Republic.” As Rick Beard put it in the opening of a “Disunion” essay, “The Lincoln administration may not have gone to war in 1861 to end slavery, but no one bothered to tell that to the slaves.”
 
In another “Disunion” piece, Steven Hahn wrote that in antebellum days, the enslaved “knew as well as anyone else in the country that the likelihood of civil war was growing and, by sharing information and interpreting the course of political events, they readied themselves to act—not only to escape their bonds, but to do their part to make the war about their freedom, whether the North wanted it that way or not.” They relied on “scattered literacy, limited mobility and communication networks they constructed over many years” to learn what they knew. “[P]oliticized slaves,” Hahn wrote, “understood the stakes of the Civil War far better than the combatants themselves.” For them, “Lincoln’s election meant emancipation.” Hahn's piece closed with an observation about the invisibility: “By the early fall of 1862, Lincoln had decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation and enroll African Americans in the Union Army and Navy. Bold initiatives these were, revolutionary in effect, and wholly unimagined when the war began: except by the slaves whose actions helped bring them about. Lincoln’s political sensibilities had finally caught up to theirs.” Hahn might well have written instead, “Lincoln’s political sensibilities had finally caught up to their invisible ones.”
 
Blight links those unseen political sensibilities to Frederick Douglass's view, long before Fort Sumter, that a civil war would constitute an enormous freedom opportunity. Douglass and other abolitionists, Blight explains, “yearned for a politics of disorder that might force the nation to confront, willingly or not, its future over slavery vs. freedom.”
 
A politics of disorder. That's what Baker, Mallory, Townsend, and that mighty river of like-minded freedom strivers exploited, starting weeks after the war began. Why again do 44 states instead mark slavery's end by celebrating the passive reception of emancipation news weeks after Appomattox?
 
A more fitting anniversary
 
“America never was America to me,” declared Langston Hughes of the Harlem Renaissance in a poem calling to mind Frederick Douglass's coldly objective, experience-grounded contempt for the Fourth of July. The poet reiterated, “There’s never been equality for me/ Nor freedom in this 'homeland of the free.'” He put disdain-conveying quotation marks on that homeland phrase. But his poem embraced more. It surveyed the country's freedom and its promise. Near the end appeared a verse that exclaimed:
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
 
“America will be!” Self-emancipators swore that oath too—with actions, not words. Their nation had been the first to claim to found itself on human-rights ideas. At the Union's mighty, and mighty symbolic, bastion in Confederate Virginia, and soon across the land, their actions affirmed those long-ignored principles. May 23 marks the beginning of the moment in American history when those principles finally began to be respected—the beginning of the completion of that ideas-based founding.
 
Yet in 2015, thanks to the invisibility of black agency, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution proclaiming that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments “truly constituted” the country's “second founding,” which “began in earnest” with the 13th Amendment. And in 2016 at the Daily Press, the newspaper for the area around Fort Monroe, an editorial casually called June 19 “as good a date as any” for celebrating slavery’s end. The editors declared confidently that Juneteenth was “when we began to actually mean” that all are created equal. But once that kind of blindness to black agency is overcome, it's plain that it’s May 23 that marks the start of the “second founding”—the time when the country actually began to mean what the Declaration of Independence professes. Juneteenth cements a false understanding.
 
Displacing Juneteenth means a risk of undercutting not only the genuine happiness that annually recurs in that commemoration, but its many celebrations of black culture. Obsolete Juneteenth does recall a happy day, but May 23 recalls a profoundly American one.