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Oh, Freedom: Words & Music for Juneteenth

[Editor’s note: On Juneteenth in 2020, Ruth Naomi Floyd (known by many in the Rabbit Room readership for her amazing Hutchmoot sessions) shared a lovingly curated combination of her own words, two letters from former prisoners of the American slavery system, and her performance of the song

“Oh, Freedom.” This story of a freedom “prayed for, hoped for, cried for, moaned for, even fought for” carries an abiding resonance that we want to extend to our readership this year as well. We encourage you to take in these words and melodies slowly and attentively.]

“And are we yet alive to see each other’s face.” —an African prisoner of the forced labor system of American Slavery

History would say that the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863 ended American chattel slavery, thereby changing the legal status of the African prisoners of that forced labor system for good. Yet what is actually true is that emancipation on that day only freed the African slaves in the Confederate states. Slavery remained alive and well in Texas, due to the lack of the presence of Union troops whose responsibility it was to enforce the proclamation. Because Texas held onto slavery, many slaveholders relocated there along with their slaves and the slave population in Texas increased by tens of thousands.

While millions across the Confederacy rejoiced in their new-found freedom—a freedom prayed for, hoped for, cried for, moaned for, even fought for—still so many in Texas were not included in that freedom song for a very long time.

However on June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the people of Texas were informed that they too, were indeed free. Lively celebrations of dancing and singing followed the pronouncement. Finally, every freed prisoner of the American slavery system could rejoice and let freedom ring!

This is what Juneteenth commemorates: the day when those enslaved in Texas received word of their freedom. In the midst of the celebrations, however, remained a bittersweet reality, that this so-called freedom would still be laden with oppression and dehumanization. For those descended of the American slave system, life continued to be permeated by inequality and injustice—a reality that remains ever present today as those who were historically emancipated still have not been fully delivered.

An African prisoner of the forced labor system of American Slavery Jennie Hill 96 years old Born 1837 Enslaved in Kansas & Missouri Interviewed in 1933

“Those masters were cruel. They carried rawhide whips and if the women dragged a little in their long march they were lashed with the whips until the blood streamed from their poor cut backs.

Some people think that the slaves had no feeling—that they bore their children as animals bear their young and that there was no heartbreak when the children were torn from their parents or the mother taken from her brood to toil for a master in another state. But that isn’t so. The slaves loved their families even as the Negroes love their own today and the happiest time of their lives was when they could sit at their cabin doors when the day’s work was done and sing the old slave songs, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ ‘Massa in the Cold, Cold Ground,’ and ‘Nobody Knows What Trouble I’ve Seen.’

Children learned these songs and sang them only as a Negro child could. That was the slave’s only happiness, a happiness that for many of them did not last.

When Lincoln freed the slaves, I knew of dozens of children who started out to search through the southland for their parents who had been sold down the river. Parents left in the north country searched frantically for their children. But I only know of one case where the family was ever united. Some perhaps were killed in the battles, but in the majority of the cases the children of slaves lost their identity when they were taken from the place of their birth into a new county.”

An African prisoner of the forced labor system of American Slavery

N.C. (Name not available) 100 years old Born in 1810 Enslaved in Alabama & Texas Interviewed in 1910

“When you were a hundred years old, you see the stars fall, and the other night when I went out I saw all the stars drop from the sky. I was at a wonder when I saw it.

Oh the stars in the elements are falling,

And the moon drips away in the blood.

We looked out on the red fields where men guided the mules in the plowing. It must be a hundred years ago. I have seen and heard a sorrow and trouble, but it is over for me. I thank the Lord that I am free, that us all, children, and women, and men are free.”


The excerpts above are from Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies by John W. Blassingame, LSU Press, 1977.

Artwork credit: “American Uprising” by Kadir Nelson for the Rolling Stone


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