Juneteenth, freedom comes to Texas

Today is Juneteenth, the anniversary of news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaching Texas on June 19, 1865. One of the three brothers in my history, William H. Holland, was a frequent speaker at emancipation celebrations in Austin during the 1870s. Holland was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but was brought to Texas as an infant in 1842. His white father, Bird Holland, was the Texas secretary of state at the time of secession. Unfortunately, while the white newspapers of the 1870s praised W.H. Holland for eloquent emancipation speeches on history and politics, they never quoted anything he said – at least not that I have discovered so far.

The topic of slavery in Texas gets short shrift in the state’s history. Black history in Texas tends to focus on the movement and the leaders who lifted the state out of the Jim Crow South. But the institution of slavery and the 30 year period afterward when leaders tried, but failed, to achieve civil rights are usually ignored or just mentioned in passing.

So in honor of Juneteenth, I thought I would let some of the slaves speak for themselves. The Federal Writers Project between 1936 and 1938 interviewed numerous former slaves in Texas and across the South. Some of their stories are heart-warming, while others are brutal. The narratives are sometimes criticized because the writers use dialect to capture the voice of the former slaves. I have kept the material as written; my apologies to anyone who is offended. And because of the time frame of the interviews, these people mostly were children during slavery and their stories may be from personal experience or of tales they heard from their parents and adopted as their own memory.

I have picked out a few quotes to draw you in, but click on the links below and read the narratives for yourself. Read them all, or browse at random. This Juneteenth, hear the words of the slaves.

The Texas Slave Narratives: Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

The first word of freedom.

“When freedom come, I didn’t know what dat was. I ‘lect Uncle Charley Burns what drive de buggy for Massa Charles, come runnin’ out in de yard and holler, ‘Everybody free, everybody free,’ and purty soon sojers comes and de captain reads a ‘mation. And, Law me, dat one time Massa Charley can’t open he mouth, ’cause de captain tell him to shut up, dat he’d do de talkin’. Den de captain say, ‘I come to tell you de slaves is free and you don’t have to call nobody master no more.’ Well, us jus’ mill ’round like cattle do. Massa Charley say iffen us wants to stay he’ll pay us, all ‘cepting my papa. He say, ‘You can’t stay here, ’cause you is a bad ‘fluence,’” Sarah Ford of West Columbia.

It was their money

“The Cavins allus thunk lots of their niggers and Grandma Maria say, ‘Why shouldn’t they—it was their money.’” Will Adams of Marshall…”Old massa went to war with his boy, Billie. They’s lots of cryin’ and weepin’ when they sot us free. Lots of them didn’t want to be free, ’cause they knowed nothin’ and had nowhere to go. Them what had good massas stayed right on.”

A big jamboree

“I dis’member jus’ how many slaves dere was, but dere was more’n 100. I saw as much as 100 sold at a time. When dey tuk a bunch of slaves to trade, dey put chains on ’em. “De other slaves lived in log cabins back of de big house. Dey had dirt floors and beds dat was made out of co’n shucks or straw. At nite dey burned de lamps for ’bout an hour, den de overseers, dey come knock on de door and tell ’em put de light out. Lots of overseers was mean. Sometimes dey’d whip a nigger wid a leather strap ’bout a foot wide and long as your arm and wid a wooden handle at de end,” William Adams, a slave in San Jacinto County.

“Jus’ fore de war, a white preacher he come to us slaves and says: ‘Do you wan’ to keep you homes whar you git all to eat, and raise your chillen, or do you wan’ to be free to roam roun’ without a home, like de wil’ animals? If you wan’ to keep you homes you better pray for de South to win. All day wan’s to pray for de South to win, raise the hand.’ We all raised our hands ’cause we was skeered not to, but we sho’ didn’ wan’ de South to win…”

“After de war dere was a lot of excitement ‘mong de niggers. Dey was rejoicin’ and singin’. Some of ’em looked puzzled, sorter skeered like. But dey danced and had a big jamboree.”

Burnin’ in torment

You see, my mamma belong to old William Cleveland and old Polly Cleveland, and they was the meanest two white folks what ever lived, ’cause they was allus beatin’ on their slaves. I know, ’cause mamma told me, and I hears about it other places, and besides, old Polly, she was a Polly devil if there ever was one, and she whipped my little sister what was only nine months old and jes’ a baby to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood jes’ ran—jes’ ’cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister,” Mary Armstrong of Houston… “But that old Polly was mean like her husban’, old Cleveland, till she die, and I hopes they is burnin’ in torment now.”

I seen ’em beat—O, Lawd, yes

“They was ’bout 40 slaves on the place, but I never seed no slaves bought or sold and I never was sold, but I seen ’em beat—O, Lawd, yes. I seen ’em make a man put his head through the crack of the rail fence and then they beat him till he was bloody. They give some of ’em 300 or 400 licks,” Carey Davenport of Walker County.

You’d hear dem whips crackin’

“Massa didn’t ‘low no overseer on he place. One my uncles de driver, and massa blow de old conk shell long ‘fore day, and if de darkies didn’t git goin’ you’d hear dem whips crackin’, Campbell Davis of Harrison County. “I seed one my sisters whip ’cause she didn’t spin ‘nough. Dey pull de clothes down to her waist and laid her down on de stomach and lash her with de rawhide quirt. I’s in de field when dey whips my Uncle Lewis for not pickin’ ‘nough cotton. De driver pull he clothes down and make him lay on de groun’. He wasn’t tied down, but he say he scart to move.”

Never would be free

“After I was traded off, my new master wasn’t so good to me. He thunk all the time the South would win that war and he treated us mean. His name was Thomas Greer. He kept tellin’ us a black nigger never would be free. When it come, he said to us, ‘Well, you black ——, you are just as free as I am.’ He turnt us loose with nothin’ to eat and mos’ no clothes. He said if he got up nex’ mornin’ and found a nigger on his place, he’d horsewhip him,” Eli Davison of Madison County.

Reads de freedom papers

“Well, things was jes’ ’bout de same all de time till jes’ ‘fore freedom,” Lucinda Elder of Houston. “Course, I hears some talk ’bout bluebellies, what dey call de Yanks, fightin’ our folks, but dey wasn’t fightin’ round us. Den one dey mamma took sick and she had hear talk and call me to de bed and say, ‘Lucinda, we all gwine be free soon and not work ‘less we git paid for it.’ She sho’ was right, ’cause Marse John calls all us to de cookhouse and reads de freedom papers to us and tells us we is all free, but iffen we wants to stay he’ll give us land to make a crop and he’ll feed us. Now I tells you de truth, dey wasn’t no one leaves, ’cause we all loves Marse John.”

‘Yous is all free, free as I am.’

James Hayes of Shelby County: “Three days after de celebration, de marster calls all de slaves in de house and says, ‘Yous is all free, free as I am.’ He tol’ us we’uns could go if we’uns wanted to. None of us knows what to do, dere warn’t no place to go and why would we’uns wan’ to go and leave good folks like de marster? His place was our home. So we’uns asked him if we could stay and he says, ‘Yous kin stay as long as yous want to and I can keep yous.’ We’uns all stayed till he died, ’bout a year after dat.

When we was free, they beat drums in Marshall

Wes Brady of Marshall: “The fightin’ was did off from us. My father went to war to wait on Josh Calloway. My father never come back. Massa Jeems cussed and ‘bused us niggers more’n ever, but he took sick and died and stepped off to Hell ’bout six months ‘fore we got free. When we was free, they beat drums in Marshall. I stayed on ’bout seven months and then my mother and me went to farmin’ for ourselves.”

Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day 2013

Washington Examiner

A note to readers: This is a portion of a chapter from my biography of Milton Holland and his family. At times, I have used the term “colored” to describe African-Americans because, though archaic today, it was widely in use by African-Americans to describe themselves in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chapter 17: Festivals of Freedom

By the thousands, African-Americans from Maryland and Virginia trekked toward Washington on April 16, 1883 — undaunted by a continuous drizzle mixed with occasional torrential downpours. They wanted to join the parade celebrating the twenty-first anniversary of the emancipation of 3,100 slaves in the District of Columbia, the first step in freeing as many as four million of slaves in America.  President Lincoln had signed the bill freeing the District slaves and compensating their owners as a precursor to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation four months later. While freed slaves and their descendants in other parts of the country celebrated other dates as Emancipation Day, for the African-Americans of Washington, the date is April 16.

The rain at first had seemed to threaten the success of the Emancipation Day parade, possibly thwarting weeks of work by a committee headed by Milton Holland. The previous year’s parade had demonstrated a good turnout of civic organizations, whose members marched past throngs of African-Americans on the sidewalks, but there had been a distinct separation between those in the parade and those on the sidewalks. As day dawned on the 1883 celebration, there were questions as to whether there would be much of an audience, would the rain prompt the free men and women of the city, with their day off from work, to seek the cozy comfort of their homes instead of the damp streets of Washington. By mid-morning, Holland and the other Emancipation Day organizers took comfort. Thousands of District residents turned out and many more were coming from the surrounding countryside – not just to watch, but to participate in the celebration. A procession formed that was a mile and a half in length. W. Calvin Chase, the ever-hyperbolic African-American editor of the Washington Bee declared the parade as “the grandest event in the history of the colored race.”

Most employers gave their colored workers the day off. The butlers, cooks and coachmen of the wealthy mixed with porters and messengers from government agencies along with waiters and stable hands and the laborers who were building the buildings of growing Washington. The wealthiest of the city were dressed in grand style, and the less fortunate showed up in muddy boots and whatever was the best clothing they had. The crowd consisted of men, women and children of all ages. Along the route were vendors of peanuts, cakes and pies. “Prattling boys” raced among the crowds. “Not withstanding the inclemency of the weather, thousands of people could be seen on the streets.”

The parade’s grand marshal was Perry H. Carson, a former District deputy U.S. Marshal under Frederick Douglass. Carson initially had trouble organizing the march because the rain delayed the arrival of numerous civic organizations. Carson finally started the procession shortly before one in the afternoon “in the midst of a driving rain.” The long column moved past the statue of Lincoln at the District City Hall and then wheeled onto 4 ½ Street before marching west on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Behind Carson came a series of military drill units from Washington and Baltimore: The Butler Zouaves, the Baltimore Rifles, the Capital City Guards, the Webster Rifles, to name a few. Christian Fleetwood, who had fought with Milton Holland at Chaffin’s Farm, led sixty members of the Washington Cadets drill and drum corps as their captain. At a reviewing stand at the intersection of Fifth and K Streets, Milton Holland sat watching the parade with orator-of-the-day Frederick Douglass at his side. Holland — the man born a slave in Panola County, Texas, and cast off from the white aristocracy by his father — now was a member of the colored elite, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the lion of abolition, watching a parade celebrating freedom. As the military units passed the reviewing stand, the colored soldiers snapped their heads toward it and saluted.

Next in the procession came the hacks filled with orators and emancipation committee members. What followed were decorated wagons – “chariots” – representing civic groups and labor organizations, with many of the groups having their chosen queens dressed as goddesses. There were wagonloads of brick masons, as well as oyster-shuckers. There was one open car “handsomely decorated from which the rain had driven the gods and goddesses, whose seats were occupied by grave-looking colored men carrying umbrellas.” The Goddess of Liberty traveled in a covered car provided by the Knights of Labor, an integrated union made up of skilled and unskilled laborers. In Rick’s Park chariot “a couple of beer kegs occupied prominent positions.”

That night, 2,000 people gathered in the First Congregational Church for speeches from prominent men, with Milton Holland serving as the master of ceremonies. Holland opened the evening by reading a poem written for the occasion by Republican activists Mary E. Kail, who was a poet, hymnist and newspaper editor from Ohio. The lyric, in part, read: “Sound aloud the trumpet of freedom, Let the answering echo ring, While with liberty commanding, We our heartfelt tribute bring…For the shackles had been broken, And four millions souls were free, That ‘till then had never tasted, Of the joys of liberty!”

For the African-American aristocrats of Washington, D.C., in the joys of liberty, this was the apex of their rights and power. Slavery was in the past, they had the right to vote and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed they could mingle in public with the best of white society, even if most of the home parlors were closed to them. But there was a growing dissent among the leading colored men. Some argued that freedom celebrations should be dropped and the history of slavery forgotten as too painful to remember, while others argued that the celebrations were too costly and embarrassed the race when the poor and ignorant misbehaved or got drunk in public, reinforcing white prejudices against blacks. And the blacks suffering the most were far away deep in the region from South Carolina to Texas; their repression more of an idea than a reality that northern blacks had to face.

Milton Holland was not one to forget either slavery or the ongoing suffering of African-Americans in the South. In introducing Frederick Douglass as the speaker of the evening, Holland lectured his Emancipation Day audience that theirs was a responsibility to remember slavery and to celebrate freedom: “There are those among us who sneer as such evidences of the gratitude of a people for blessing received. Grumblers, croakers, objectors, anti-date celebration, and I doubt now that when Gabriel blows the trumpet summoning the dead from the grave, there will be some who do not think the trump is pitched in the right key or see the necessity of propriety for such proceeding.”

Holland compared the Emancipation Day celebration to the Fourth of July, saying this “rises in importance as the cause of a man bereft of every right, robbed of every privilege, driven out from the society of men and forced to find his legal status with the beasts of the field …It is well that with full and grateful hearts you celebrate its return. Teach your children its importance, and hold it in high and sacred remembrance. Prize it as your dearest legacy from man and cherish it as the richest gift of God.” Then he introduced Douglass as “a man whose name is inseparable with the cause we celebrate.”

Taking the stage, the sixty-five-year-old Douglass told the audience that he wished one of the younger men had been chosen as the orator of the night. “I represent the past, they the present. I represent the downfall of slavery, they the glorious triumphs of liberty. I speak of deliverance from bondage, they speak of concessions to liberty and equality. Their mission begins where my mission ends.” Douglass acknowledged that the Republican Party was not as strong as it once was, and alluded to the Democrats taking a majority in the U.S. House elections the previous year but he had faith in the continued future of the GOP as a friend of African-Americans. “The sky of the American Negro is dark, but not rayless; it is story, but not cheerless.” Douglass said the future of the race seemed to face either relocation to Africa, “extinction though poverty, disease and death” or assimilation. Colonization was impractical, he said, and extinction was unacceptable. “There is but one destiny, it seems to me, left for us, and that is to make ourselves and be made by others a part of the American people in every sense of the word. Assimilation and not isolation is our true policy and our natural destiny.”

On Emancipation Day 1883, assimilation must have seemed possible for the colored aristocracy of the District of Columbia; equality was just around the corner. But the divisions caused by petty personal infighting and the weight of white prejudice in politics was about to erode the ground beneath them, leaving African-Americans living in a separate and unequal land for two-thirds of a century. And the U.S. Supreme Court was about to wipe away the protections they had under the Civil Rights Act of 1875.


That fall, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion declaring the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. The court said Congress only had the power to regulate civil rights in the District of Columbia and the territories, not the states. The decision, in essence, endorsed discrimination.

Milton Holland quickly organized a meeting to discuss the Supreme Court action and what could be done about it. “We don’t propose to make this a party question. It will be a meeting of people without regard to color or party,” he said. Holland said civil rights, to him, were identical to the personal rights protected by the Constitution.

More than 3,000 people packed into Lincoln Hall, jamming the stairs and leaving standing room only. Extra police were on duty to maintain order. Holland called the meeting to order and turned it over to the Reverend Francis Grimke for the invocation, but before Grimke could begin white abolitionist Robert G. Ingersoll entered the hall, setting off a wild ovation. Grimke then thanked God for the progress of the colored race and asked for devine help in breaking down the remaining prejudice and caste that still existed. Frederick Douglass gave a short speech, saying the colored people of American had been sickened with a pain like someone trampling on their mother’s grave. He said only mean and base whites would see justice in the court’s ruling.

Ingersoll, an ally of Republican presidential candidate James Blaine, then delivered a speech from a fifty-page document he had written. The speech was a combination of a lawyer’s plea and a radical’s exposition: “What are “the fundamental rights, privileges and immunities” which belong to a free man? Certainly the rights of all citizens of the United States are equal. Their immunities and privileges must be the same. He who makes a discrimination between citizens on account of color, violates the Constitution of the United States.” Ingersoll closed with passion, “it is very easy to see why colored people should hate us, but why we should hate them is beyond my comprehension. They never sold our wives. They never robbed our cradles. They never scarred our backs. They never pursued us with bloodhounds. They never branded our flesh…The colored people do not ask for revenge — they simply ask for justice.”

For the District’s black elite, the most vivid example that injustice was returning to their lives occurred on Christmas Eve. Milton Holland was among the men who had set up a Ball and Reception for the colored ladies at the Washington Rifles Armory, the hall of a white military group. About one hundred carriages started arriving at the armory around 9:30 p.m. with young men and women in their finest clothes. They discovered the doors locked. They were told they could not have access to the armory “on account of color.” And what made it worse was the fact the Washington Rifles was not an organization of white Democrats but was in fact Republican. Holland and the others on the organizing committee had gotten word in advance of this potential insult and had booked an alternate hall. From the doorway of the armory, they directed the crowds to the other location, “where a most pleasant time was enjoyed.” The evening was saved. But for Milton Holland, the Washington Rifles Armory was just one more door slammed shut in his face and signaled greater racial divisions yet to come – even with the whites he had once considered as allies in the fight for freedom and equality.


The Death of Bird Holland

Bird Holland is the most enigmatic member of the Holland family.

As an executive in state government, his signature is plentiful on state documents. But very little personal correspondence still exists. And while the letters and memoirs of other early Texas figures tell us Bird Holland was well liked personally, there is little to tell us about his personality. If there was an official portrait of Bird Holland as either a former state House member or as secretary of state, it was lost when the Texas Capitol burned to the ground in 1881.

Perhaps most striking is how little there is within his own family. Letters and diaries make mention of him; not a whole lot more. Late in life, he became a member of William Rust’s family by marriage to one of Rust’s daughters. He remained close to William Rust, although Bird’s wife died just 10 months after their wedding. When Bird Holland was killed at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Rust received his diaries and had correspondence from him. The Rust family preserved none of it.

Maybe it is because Bird Holland had a family by a slave, and his seven mixed-race children were a family secret. Whatever was his relationship with the slave Matilda, he demonstrated affection for his children. Three boys — William, James and Milton — were sent to live free in Ohio, and Bird paid an abolitionist school to rear and educate them for trades. For a daughter and his youngest son — Eliza and John — Bird included them in his will with verbal instructions to his friend James F. Johnson that they were to receive all the cash money of his estate and all debts he was owed. After Bird’s death, Johnson helped Eliza and John sue a corrupt Texas Ranger to collect several thousand dollars that he owed them.

As Texas Secretary of State in 1861, Bird Holland signed the new state constitution that officially made Texas a part of the Confederate States of America. When he left office nine months later he joined voluntary infantry forces that were being put together to repel an expected federal invasion on the Texas coast. Ultimately, the fight occurred in Louisiana in 1864 at the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.

At a later date, I’ll blog about those two battles and Bird’s specific role in them as the adjutant of the 22nd Texas Volunteer Infantry. (A note on the re-enactment video, the Texas flag is for the 12th Texas Cavalry, but there were no re-enactors for the 22nd TVI, so it had to do.)

On April 9, 1864, at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, Bird Holland was killed in action, fighting to save Texas from an invading Union army. He also was fighting to preserve slavery, a contradiction for a man with slave-born children, some of whom he had freed.

Bird Holland was about 49 years old when he died in battle.

Launching the story of Bird Holland’s family

Bird Holland was a contradiction in antebellum Texas.

He fathered seven children by a slave named Matilda, who belonged to his half brother Spearman. And from the record, we can infer that Bird loved his slave-born children.

In 1852, he moved three of his sons — William, James and Milton — to Ohio, set them free and paid abolitionists to raise them. A fourth son was too young, but Bird kept him at his side in Austin after he turned 12, the age at which Spearman was likely to sell him as a field hand.

But as a politician, Bird Holland supported continuing the institution of slavery in Texas and signed onto a resolution that described African-Americans as inferior. As Texas secretary of state, it was Bird Holland’s signature that official bound Texas to the Confederate States of America. He died leading the 22nd Texas Volunteer Infantry into the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, on April 9, 1864.

A secret covenant of Bird Holland’s will gave the cash in his estate and debts he was owed to his son John and a slave-born daughter named Eliza. Bird’s best friend, Texas Supreme Court chief clerk James F. Johnson, helped John and Eliza collect the money they were owed. While the money did not make them rich, it was enough for them to buy a home and bring their mother to Austin from Spearman’s collapsed plantation near Carthage.

The free woman Matilda never again worked for anyone other than herself and her family. But she always listed herself as a widow.