Can you name 5 African Americans who helped end slavery--besides Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman?
Today is Juneteenth. This holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery, tells us as much about what America means as the Fourth of July, Presidents Day, or Memorial Day. What distinguishes the United States is our nation's persistent struggle to make real a set of ideals that have been contested and contentious from the earliest days of the republic. It's particularly worth remembering Juneteenth this year, as people across the country mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Not that all Americans are drawn to commemorating that anniversary. Before the war began, over four million African Americans were enslaved. When the war ended, three-quarters of a million soldiers were dead, and slavery as an institution had crumbled. And yet, as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently observed, few blacks study the Civil War. Coates' astute historiography demonstrates why, as he traces how both popular and scholarly accounts of the war have for 150 years downplayed the centrality of slavery to the conflict. Even today, he argues, the Civil War too often remains "a story for white people--acted out by white people, on white people's terms--in which blacks feature as stock characters and props."
Even Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated by far more blacks than whites, can obscure the centrality of blacks in the struggle to end slavery. Juneteenth marks the anniversary of Union General Gordon Granger announcing in Galveston on June 19, 1865, that the Civil War was over, and that any slaves in Texas were thus free. The root of the holiday involves blacks waiting to be told their enslavement was ended. But nearly 200,000 blacks served in Union regiments, and still more contributed to the struggle as civilians. A century and a half later, their contributions are nearly all forgotten.
Nearly all--in the spirit of multiculturalism, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass have been given prominence in children's books and school curriculums, at least in recent years. But as inspirational as their lives are, focusing solely on these two individuals reifies a sense of their exceptionalism, further obscuring the myriad roles countless blacks played in ending slavery. So, with all due respect to Tubman and Douglass, as we mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it's time to enlarge the pantheon of anti-slavery heroes we celebrate.
Here are five examples of soldiers and civilians whose remarkable but little-known contributions exemplify what Americans should celebrate on Juneteenth:
1. Robert Smalls, the enslaved wheelman on a Confederate blockade runner, impersonated the ship's captain one night to commandeer the ship, bringing the rest of the enslaved crew and their family members to freedom. After surrendering the ship to Union forces, he served as a pilot and captain for the Union navy.
2. Mary Bowser, born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, was freed by her owner and educated in the North. After serving as missionary in Liberia, she returned to the South and became a spy for the Union Army--by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. Inverting the assumption that blacks were incapable of intelligence, she provided critical intelligence, as part of an espionage ring run by her former owner.
3. Susie King Taylor, who as a young slave attended clandestine schools, was only in her early teens when she fled to the Union lines and became the first black teacher in freedman's school, in St. Simons Island, Georgia. After marrying a black noncommissioned officer, she traveled with his regiment, serving as nurse and teacher to the soldiers.
4. David Bustill Bowser was a free-born artist active in both the Philadelphia Underground Railroad and in efforts to restore voting rights to black men in Pennsylvania. During the Civil War, he designed flags for at least seven and possibly as many as eleven different units of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), which served to rally black soldiers as they charged into battle.
5. Garland White escaped from enslavement in Washington, D.C., making his way to Canada. During the Civil War, he returned to the U.S. and helped raise enlistments for black units in New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Indiana, eventually serving as chaplain of 28th USCT. When the regiment entered Richmond, Virginia, after the fall of the Confederate government there, he was reunited with his mother, from whom he'd been sold away years earlier.
These five individuals exemplify a breadth of activities, from education to political organizing, from surreptition to military service. Although you probably don't have the day off, haven't received a greeting card, and won't be wished a merry or a happy, I invite you to celebrate Juneteenth by sharing other examples that further broaden our understanding of the active part blacks played in ending slavery.
The Civil War and the abolition of slavery are neither white history nor black history. They are our American history. On Juneteenth, of all days, all Americans should remember the varied and critical parts that both free and enslaved African Americans played in ending an institution that was fundamentally at odds with the liberty and equality that are the center point of our nation.