By Kristen Adaway
As June 19th approaches, or Juneteenth as it is often known, many African-Americans across the United States will celebrate the day that marked the end of slavery in the states.
On this day in 1865, General Gordon Granger, leader of the Union soldiers, gave the executive order that “all slaves were free.” Yet, it is important to note that this order was given two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, thus showing how slow the United States and its people are to executing progressive change.
While this newfound freedom seemed like a breath of fresh air to those that had been abused in every way possible for over two centuries, becoming adjusted to independent living was not an easy task. Many obstacles, both legislative and social, proved to be sizeable barriers to free movement and social mobility. These factors combined created what I have come to describe as the “Black ceiling.”
Drawing its roots from the famous term “glass ceiling”, the Black ceiling consists of every hurdle and disadvantage Black people specifically face as a result of slavery and its aftermath. Despite Merriam Webster’s definition of the glass ceiling stating that it is “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions,” when used in cultural context, the emphasis is usually placed on women while minorities’ experiences and attempts at creating inclusive environments are criticized.
When Black people’s experiences post-slavery are analyzed within this context, it becomes clear that the Black ceiling has shaped financial and educational opportunities for this group for more than a century.
Sharecropping and the limitations of Economic Freedom
For the first time since 1619, freed slaves were faced with the full responsibility of finding and obtaining their own living arrangements for their families. According to a Washington Post article, some chose to stay on their former slave owner’s land and work as sharecroppers, while others fled to larger cities to pursue the previously unattainable idea of success. This idea would eventually be coined by James Truslow Adams as the “American Dream”.
There were also some freed slaves, specifically the men and fathers, who worked together to gather any money they could to buy land from their white former slave owners.
Although the latter approach seems like it would have been the most sought after, sharecropping was a more popular option for many Black Americans in the South. HISTORY describes sharecropping as a method where “black families would rent small plots of land in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year.”
Some sociologists and researchers have called this system of survival “neoslavery,” due to its structural similarities with the slave master to slave dynamic apparent pre-1865. Pulitzer-winning writer and journalist Douglas Blackmon wrote in his book Slavery By Another Name that “the slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation.” Blackmon argued that slavery did not in fact end with the 1865 order and that it actually continued on for decades after during what he called the “Age of Neoslavery.”
Sharecropping was one of the most explicit exploitive practices that took advantage of freed slaves. With no cash or credit system available to freed Black people, sharecropping resulted in sharecroppers owing more to the landowner for the use of tools and other supplies than they were able to repay, according to HISTORY.
In turn, this sent many Black sharecroppers into debt with poverty or violence hovering over them if they refused to sign unreasonable contracts that would ultimately leave them with less money than they worked for. This unfortunate situation was not shared by all Black people during this time, however. Some were able to earn enough money over several years to rent or buy their own portion of land.
Learning While Black: Education after emancipation
In an age where the phrase “reading is fundamental” is casually dropped in everyday conversation, and there are entire campaigns focused on the literacy crisis, it can be hard to imagine what life would be like without the ability to read. Unfortunately, being able to read or having the opportunity to learn how has not been a reality for all Black people in the states.
According to Heather Andrea Williams, a professor of Africana Studies at Harvard University “white southerners’ fear of an educated Black population did not dissipate” upon emancipation. Williams is the author of Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, a book on how freed slaves educated themselves throughout the Reconstruction era.
In the book, Williams goes into great detail about the different ways that freed slaves managed to seek out education, including them building their own schools.
The first Black public high school was Paul Laurence Dunbar High, which opened its doors in Washington, D.C. in 1870. The school came about after failed attempts at integrating in nation’s capital. However, even though the school originally provided educational services for over 40 Black students, it received little funding for this very reason. According to Blackpast.org, there were “ongoing teacher shortages, insufficient classroom space with poor maintenance, and lack of athletic facilities” as years passed.
The Freedmen’s Bureau is often credited with providing the greatest amount of educational resources for freed slaves. In March 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was created in order to help former slaves and poor whites in the south after the end of the Civil War.
According to the Georgia Encyclopedia,even though the bureau did not actually hire teachers or operate the schools, it played a vital part in establishing schools for former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for renting buildings for schoolrooms and providing books were. Military protection for the students and teachers was also provided by the Bureau to fend off opponents of Black literacy and angry white supremacists.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was officially shut down in 1872 as the Ku Klux Klan violence intensified and by Congress’s refusal to renew the legislation that kept it running.
Turning toward the present
Black Americans today have been surmounting these obstacles.
Non-Hispanic Black people make up roughly 13 percent of the United States’ population according to a 2015 report from the United States Census Bureau. Although this percentage is small, the contributions made by Black people, both credited and uncredited, have resulted in an everlasting impact on the United States. Despite every trial and tribulation forced upon such a resilient group, Black Americans have prospered in the same areas that were once completely out of reach.
Examples of this success can be seen on various social media platforms through the hashtag “#BlackExcellence.” This hashtag has broadened to include not only college-related achievements but also any accomplishment that contradicts negative stereotypes that have been attributed to Black people.
So while the anniversary of Juneteenth can be seen as a time for celebration, it should also be a time where we reflect on the great lengths taken and bravery that Black people as a whole have shown, and look ahead at how far we have to go as a nation.
Photo via Wiki Commons
Kristen Adaway is a senior at the University of Georgia pursuing a degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. She has a passion for writing about social justice, mental health, and culture. Her work has been featured in Her Campus, Elite Daily, and HelloGiggles.