Juneteenth: Black History in Digital Collections

Posted on June 18, 2020

Content warning: In remembrance of the abolition of slavery, this post references digitized manuscript collections that describe slavery and its lasting impact on Black lives in America. In describing these manuscripts, we hope to illuminate the history of anti-Black racism as documented in our archive and uplift Black voices calling for an equitable and just present and future.

While Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 made abolition an explicit war goal for the Union, its enactment was neither swift nor complete. The executive order that emerged from the proclamation changed the federal legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in Confederate states from “slave” to “free,” but did not outright abolish slavery or grant citizenship to the formerly enslaved. While the proclamation may have influenced public opinion of abolition, it did more to strengthen the Union—recruiting freed Blacks to join their army and gaining the support of European allies—than it did to ensure the immediate liberation and inherent rights of African Americans nationwide.

Black and white photograph of African Americans marching down a street in Richmond, Virginia.
A Juneteenth celebration in Richmond, Virginia, 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Civil War waged until April 1865, and the freedom of African Americans in Confederate States was often dependent on the presence of Union troops in the area. Texas, a more remote Confederate State with fewer Union troops, did not formally emancipate all enslaved Africans Americans until over two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read aloud a federal order, General Order No. 3, announcing the emancipation of all enslaved people in Texas. Texas was the last Confederate State to formally emancipate its enslaved African Americans, nearly three years after Lincoln first delivered the Emancipation Proclamation. The ratification of Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 sought to ensure the abolition of slavery across all the United States.

Black communities across Texas greeted the news of emancipation with celebration and remembrance. The following year, on June 19, 1866, marked the first “Jubilee Day,” an annual holiday that by the end of the century was widely known as Juneteenth.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” also known as Freedom Day, marks the emancipation of enslaved individuals in Texas, but largely celebrates the liberation of Black Americans across the whole country. This annual holiday is thanks to the organizing of Black communities whose unity and perseverance ensured this day does not go forgotten. When freed Blacks in Texas could not gain entry to segregated public parks, they pooled their money to purchase land for their Juneteenth celebrations. Today, 47 out of 50 states recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday, and this is because of the effort and advocacy of Black activists, community leaders, and everyday families wanting to remember history and celebrate growth. Juneteenth celebrations take many different forms—including barbecues, soul food festivals, public readings of works by Black authors, and voter registration efforts. Many consider Juneteenth an Independence Day and worthy of recognition as a federal holiday.

At Special Collections, we continue to probe our preexisting collections for both their explicit language and their silences, understanding that American history is also Black history and that an archive is never complete but can always grow and extend its reach.

Page from a farm account book. Two tables are printed on the page. The table at the top of the page lists marriages of "Negroes," the individuals enslaved on the plantation. The bottom table lists "Records of births and deaths of Negroes" from 1857 through 1861.
"Record of births and deaths of Negroes," Plantation and Farm Instruction, Regulation, Record, Inventory and Account Book (Mss. MsV Af27)

As a repository of Virginia family papers, Special Collections has several plantation records kept by white slaveholders. One recently digitized manuscript volume, the Plantation and Farm Instruction, Regulation, Record, Inventory and Account Book (Mss. MsV Af27), documents the dehumanization of enslavement in plain terms. Alongside inventories of farm equipment and tallies of annual purchases is a list of births and deaths of individuals enslaved on this unidentified Virginian plantation. Tucked away toward the back of the record book, this list treats enslaved African Americans like livestock—worth keeping track of for the sake of the plantation’s output and profit, but not worthy of unconditional liberation, humanity, and respect.

Other manuscripts in our holdings depict the writings and voices of enslaved African Americans and emphasize the inherently imbalanced relationship between the slaveholder and the individuals they enslaved. A digitized 1842 letter from Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley to Fanny Burwell (Mss. 65 B95) delivers news from home and updates on household chores. Keckley calls herself a “servant” and writes with admiration for Burwell, whom she calls “Mammy.” While Keckley’s letter does not express contempt or fatigue, her writing underscores the illusion of choice and agency promoted by white slaveholders. Keckley writes to Burwell in a familial sense when she was, in fact, the family’s property. Keckley bought freedom for her and her son in 1855 and would later become a confidante and seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln. Her 1868 autobiography Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (E457.15 .K26 1868), a copy of which lives in Special Collections, details the abuse she endured while enslaved—sobering descriptions of violence that could never make it into polite letters to her white abusers.

Page from a handwritten manuscript letter, written by Elizabeth Keckley in cursive script. In some places, the page has been torn and the text is illegible.
A page from the 1842 Elizabeth "Lizzie" Keckley Letter (Mss. 65 B95)

Like depictions of slavery, extant depictions of freedom in Special Collections are often told through a white perspective. The digitized Freedmen’s Bureau Journal (SC 00664) is a diary of an unidentified white employee for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, working near Norfolk, Virginia in 1865. The writer expresses genuine admiration for the growth and achievements of the freed Black men he helps oversees, and the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau did provide new and substantial employment opportunities for African Americans. But language about missionary teachers and requisite classes likewise suggest a paternalistic attitude, implying that Black freedom must follow a prescribed path determined by the white ruling class.

More contemporary collecting efforts seek to archive the lives of Black Americans through their own unfiltered voices and lived experiences. One of our oral history collections, Living the Legacy, invites Black students and alumni to candidly share their experiences at William & Mary. A common theme in these oral histories is the significance of attending a school built using enslaved labor and the need for the university to acknowledge and apologize for its role in slavery in order to usher in a more equitable future. Beverly Thompson, a Ph.D. recipient from the class of 1999, shares in her oral history, “You’re kind of in this space where, you know, it was a different experience for your ancestors….A lot of what I had to do was balance my experience with what I heard and try and reconcile: Do these two things actually mirror? Do they make sense? Is this different?”

First page of the handwritten Freedmen's Bureau Journal.
The personal diary of a white teacher working for the Freedmen's Bureau, 1865 (SC 00664)

Other manuscript collections document the work of the Black community in Williamsburg making space for themselves in a region with a long history of slavery and segregation. The papers of Reverend Curtis West Harris and his wife Ruth Jones Harris (Mss. Acc. 2014.006) include materials from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as information on annual Juneteenth celebrations in Williamsburg.

Recent Black Lives Matter protests emphasize the importance of remembering slavery and its abolition, as well as standing up against the lasting anti-Black racism that continues to impose unjust economic, social, and legal restraint on Black lives. Like most archives, Special Collections is a place embedded within structures of white supremacy. White collectors and archivists would often neglect Black experiences and Black voices and present an incomplete or inaccurate narrative of history. Special Collections endeavors to fill in these gaps not by taking from communities we have historically underserved, but by forming partnerships with these communities and respecting the time it takes to form relationships founded on mutual trust, understanding, and giving.

This Juneteenth, we invite you to explore our digitized collections to learn more about the injustices of slavery that continue to harm Black lives today. Juneteenth is an opportunity to remember America's past and critically engage with the present. For reading suggestions on active and informed allyship, check out W&M Libraries’ Antiracist Bookshelf, which includes several e-texts available now to W&M users.


Resources and More to Explore: