Black people waiting to be free? Oh, that’s not a thing. Even during slavery, Black people were participants in securing their freedom. They resisted, or refused to comply with their enslavement, through action and argument — and were doing so before and have been since.
After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, it took two years for enslaved Black people in Confederate-controlled areas, such as Texas, to learn they were free. On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and shared the news — more than two months after the Civil War had ended.
That day became known as Juneteenth, a yearly celebration that started the following year, 1866, in Texas but quickly spread to Black communities throughout the United States. Juneteenth has been recognized as a second Independence Day, and the holiday’s popularity has grown in the 150 years since it was first observed. Just last year, Juneteenth became a federal holiday.
That is why Juneteenth is bittersweet. On one hand, it’s terrible that enslaved Black people weren’t immediately aware of the law that codified their freedom. On the other, Juneteenth is a day that recognizes just how joyous they must’ve felt upon hearing the news of their emancipation.
Resistance can take many forms. Yet there are six strategies, outlined in an exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, that are particularly compelling. On a wall in the museum’s waiting room, these methods — escape, revolt, petition and protest, community building, achievement and success, and defiance — are displayed with examples showing how Black people have used each one to liberate themselves. It’s important for us to understand and recognize each of those strategies in action, what they are, what they look like, and how Black people have used them throughout history — yes, even during slavery — to secure their freedom.
Whether before the news reached Galveston or today, before any law freed them or declared them equal, Black people have been doing the work to free themselves.
The first, escape, means to get out or remove oneself from a situation. Escape can often be risky, especially when being captured could result in death. Despite that possibility, one way enslaved Black people resisted slavery was by escaping, including by way of the Underground Railroad, to northern states, Mexico, or Canada. They also escaped and established maroon societies: remote, secluded communities, often in mountains or swamp areas, where formerly enslaved people established their own organized societies and lived as free people.
Another way the enslaved resisted was through revolt, in which oppressed people directly confront their oppressors with the goal of stripping the oppressor of power and taking agency of their own lives. A significant example of revolt is the Haitian Revolution. Enslaved Black people on the island of Haiti, led by Gen. François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, rose up against their French oppressors and in their victory became the first Black-led and independent republic in the Caribbean.
Third, the combination of petitioning and protesting is a strategy of resistance that involves publicly and collectively making statements against oppression and demanding change, such as having a march or hosting a rally. It’s a strategy people often think of when the idea of resistance is brought up, especially since this approach can result in increased attention from the public. Another way to petition and protest is through writing. One way those who were enslaved petitioned and protested was by sharing their stories in what we now call slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’ memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” wherein the horrors of slavery are exposed partly in an attempt to educate and sway White public opinion on the matter of slavery. Later, activist and journalist Ida B. Wells wrote pamphlets that documented and demanded an end to lynchings in the United States.
As we know, one of the ways oppressors succeed is by keeping the people they’re marginalizing apart. Coming together and remaining connected through community building is a way, then, for marginalized people to resist their situations. Community building is, according to civil rights museum curators, where “African American identity could form and grow strong.” For example, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1787 by the Free African Society, led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, which grew out of the Free African Society founded in 1787 in Philadelphia. They established their home church, Mother Bethel AME, as a space where Black churchgoers who were being segregated in White churches could worship together, in an all-Black space. Bethel also became a stop on the Underground Railroad, an effort that was possible surely because the church had built a strong community.
Sometimes, despite circumstances, marginalized people are able to gain a platform, some form of power, or additional resources. Achievement and success become forms of resistance when those who have attained a comparatively more powerful status use what they have to help other people who have less power.
In 1862, Robert Smalls, who had been born enslaved in South Carolina, used his wits and knowledge of Charleston Harbor to take over a Confederate ship and transport more than a dozen enslaved Black people, including his wife and children, to freedom. Today, we can see how Black film directors such as Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) have used their success to help other Black creators make inroads in Hollywood.
Finally, the sixth strategy, defiance, occurs when people refuse to be limited by oppression or their conditions. The act of imagining a new world, where one isn’t oppressed, is also an act of defiance. Maintaining cultural traditions is another. The tradition of Black women’s quilt making, for example, is a form of resistance. Quilts have been used by Black women as a means of telling their own stories, and the aesthetic often reflects African influences.
This Juneteenth, as we celebrate when enslaved Black people heard news of their liberation, we should also celebrate the many ways Black people have been agents of their own freedom, something they continued after emancipation. Black history is full of moments of intentional, consistent, and organized resistance: Victor Green’s “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which Black people used to find places safe from White supremacist violence to sleep and eat as they traveled by car throughout the country, is a wonderful example of community building. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to participate in the Vietnam War is the epitome of defiance. Black Lives Matter demonstrations are clear examples of the power of protest.
Whether before the news reached Galveston or today, before any law freed them or declared them equal, Black people have been doing the work to free themselves. The multiracial abolitionist movement of the 19th century offers a view into the ways people can explore and amplify an argument until it comes to fruition. However, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the ways Black people have always spearheaded their own liberation, a fact that’s beyond worthy of being included in any celebration of independence — and is especially appropriate for Juneteenth.
Mia Henry is the founder of Freedom Lifted, a social justice training and consulting organization. Summer McDonald is a writer and editor who contributed to research for this commentary.