NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 18: A new Federal Holiday ''Juneteenth'' is celebrated in the heart of Harlem, New York City, United States on June 18, 2021. President Biden signed legislation making June 19, or Juneteenth, a new national holiday. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) A new Federal Holiday ''Juneteenth'' is celebrated in NYC
NEW YORK, USA - JUNE 18: A new Federal Holiday ''Juneteenth'' is celebrated in the heart of Harlem, New York City, United States on June 18, 2021. President Biden signed legislation making June 19, or Juneteenth, a new national holiday. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

At the close of the Civil War, news of Emancipation took two months to wind its away across the South. But word reached the Stagville plantation in Durham, NC, in about two days.

Gen. Robert Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant April 9, 1865 at Appomattox, Virginia, and roughly two days later, the news reached Stagville Plantation near Durham.

Now a state historic site, Stagville was once one of North Carolina’s largest plantations. From 1771 to 1865, the Bennehan-Cameron family held more than 900 Black people in bondage on 30,000 acres of land, stealing their work and selling off their relatives for profit. That changed on April 11, 1865. 

“I heard the shouts all over the plantations. ‘We are free!’ … ‘God has answered our prayers at his own appointed time; He has bursted the bonds of slavery!’” wrote Morgan Latta, a former slave at the Stagville plantation. Latta was 12 or 13 when he heard the freedom word. Later in life, he documented his story in “Autobiography of My Life and Work,” published in 1903. 

Morgan Latta
Morgan Latta, and the students of Latta University, a trade school for Black students that operated in the late 19th century and early 20th century. (Images courtesy of Historic Stagville)

The news of emancipation arrived relatively quickly in North Carolina and unchained 1 in every 3 residents. It took months for Black people deeper South to learn they were now legally free. Emancipation didn’t arrive at its final Southern outpost in Galveston, Texas, until June 19, 1865.

With President Joe Biden signing a bill into law Thursday formally recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, more Americans are becoming familiar with the history surrounding the holiday. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t mark the end of slavery in America. Issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the document was a military strategy that only declared freedom for people enslaved in the Confederate states – leaving those in slave-holding Union states like Delaware and New Jersey in bondage until the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Cresting on the voluntary and sometimes forced help of Black Southerners, the Union began racking up victories until the war was won. 

“Despite how violent and traumatic slavery was, one of the main ways people survived this system was to build relationships through family and community,” said Khadija McNair, assistant site manager at Stagville. “As much as 1865 is a year of celebration, it’s also a year of hope.” 

Repairing Broken Bonds 

slave-quarters-1
(Image courtesy of HIstoric Stagville)

It was the hope of reuniting with family that motivated many newly freed people. 

Latta recalled how, the night of Emancipation, slave quarter residents rose up at midnight and joined together in a prayer circle. 

“Husbands prayed that they might see their wives again, and the wives prayed that they might see their husbands again, and the children prayed that they might see their parents again, and also their sisters and brothers,” he witnessed.

Though literacy was illegal during slavery, freedmen and women placed thousands of ads in newspapers seeking relatives who had been separated or sold away. Many took on their former enslavers’ last names so they might be more easily found by family who hadn’t seen them in years.

People embarked on perilous travels back to former places of bondage, the last places they’d lived with relatives. It was dangerous. They were threatened by former Confederate soldiers, lingering Union soldiers, and angry white civilians alike. 

“People were pulling every string to be able to see their families again,” McNair said. “There was no land of their own or home of their own, besides what was on the plantation and place they were forced to labor. They were hoping to reunite with their loved ones who they were forced away from.”

Elijah, Lucy and six of their children had been sold away from Stagville to Edgecombe County a few years before the war ended. Upon learning of Emancipation, they set out to walk the 80-mile journey back to reclaim the rest of their family. Paul Cameron, Stagville’s executor, posted former overseers as guards to ensure the relatives did not reunite. No surviving records show that the family completed the journey.  

The Debro family, who lived close to Stagville, was lined up by former Confederate soldiers and asked, one by one, if they wished to be free. Those who answered yes were shot on the spot. 

Acts of Resistance

But before freedom the enslaved people of Stagville had resisted, some running away and others fighting, and this continued after freedom. Having survived violence for generations, many now armed themselves to protect their families. 

Some moved away and became landowners in their own right. Almost all of the formerly enslaved house servants refused to work any longer for the Cameron family, and formerly enslaved field hands began organizing for rights to the plantation land. They held a labor strike and Cameron brought in a federal soldier to quell the uprising. 

Cameron, like other wealthy Confederates, received a full pardon from the US government for his role in secession. He immediately began a campaign to retain control over Stagville’s former captives by instituting draconian sharecropping contracts. These documents gave him control over their churches, social visits, and what property they could buy or sell. There was even a clause that stated sharecroppers be “perfectly respectful in language and deportment,” and Cameron evicted people he deemed “impudent.” 

“People were turned around and forced right back into a system that oppressed them,” McNair said. “They found ways to reinforce slavery in a different name, sharecropping.”

Despite the threats of economic discrimination and domestic terror faced by the newly freed people, these survivors were able to persist and leave their own legacies in North Carolina. 

By signing the Juneteenth Act into law, Biden created the first federal holiday since Martin Luther King Day was established in 1983. It received unanimous support in the US Senate and only 14 Republicans voted against it in the House.

Meanwhile, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and voting rights bill For the People continue to languish in the Senate. HR 40, a bill to study reparations and the government’s systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans, has stalled in the House. And in North Carolina and states across the nation, dozens of lawmakers have introduced legislation attacking methods for teaching American history in schools.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They embrace them,” Biden said Thursday. “This day doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today.”