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Juneteenth: ‘The Day of Freedom Came’

First-person accounts of emancipation.
June 19, 2023
Juneteenth: ‘The Day of Freedom Came’
A portrait of 92-year-old Felix Haywood taken in San Antonio, Texas on June 16, 1937 to accompany his interview for the slave narratives project of the Federal Writers’ Project. (His story appears below.) (Library of Congress)

[The end of slavery in the United States was a drawn-out process, with the timing and method varying from state to state and within states. Here are five testimonies of men and women from four different states recollecting—decades later—how they and their families heard and responded to the news of their freedom.]

‘Freedom Was a More Serious Thing Than They Had Expected to Find It.’

Finally the war closed, and the day of freedom came. It was a momentous and eventful day to all upon our plantation [in Virginia]. We had been expecting it. Freedom was in the air, and had been for months. Deserting soldiers returning to their homes were to be seen every day. Others who had been discharged, or whose regiments had been paroled, were constantly passing near our place. The “grape-vine telegraph” was kept busy night and day. The news and mutterings of great events were swiftly carried from one plantation to another. In the fear of “Yankee” invasions, the silverware and other valuables were taken from the “big house,” buried in the woods, and guarded by trusted slaves. Woe be to any one who would have attempted to disturb the buried treasure. The slaves would give the Yankee soldiers food, drink, clothing—anything but that which had been specifically intrusted to their care and honour.

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the “freedom” in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world. The night before the eventful day, word was sent to the slave quarters to the effect that something unusual was going to take place at the “big house” the next morning.

There was little, if any, sleep that night. All was excitement and expectancy. Early the next morning word was sent to all the slaves, old and young, to gather at the house. In company with my mother, brother, and sister, and a large number of other slaves, I went to the master’s house. All of our master’s family were either standing or seated on the veranda of the house, where they could see what was to take place and hear what was said. There was a feeling of deep interest, or perhaps sadness, on their faces, but not bitterness. As I now recall the impression they made upon me, they did not at the moment seem to be sad because of the loss of property, but rather because of parting with those whom they had reared and who were in many ways very close to them. The most distinct thing that I now recall in connection with the scene was that some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated coloured people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself. In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved. These were the questions of a home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches.

Was it any wonder that within a few hours the wild rejoicing ceased and a feeling of deep gloom seemed to pervade the slave quarters? To some it seemed that, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it. Some of the slaves were seventy or eighty years old; their best days were gone. They had no strength with which to earn a living in a strange place and among strange people, even if they had been sure where to find a new place of abode. To this class the problem seemed especially hard. Besides, deep down in their hearts there was a strange and peculiar attachment to “old Marster” and “old Missus,” and to their children, which they found it hard to think of breaking off. With these they had spent in some cases nearly a half-century, and it was no light thing to think of parting. Gradually, one by one, stealthily at first, the older slaves began to wander from the slave quarters back to the “big house” to have a whispered conversation with their former owners as to the future.

—Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

‘Anyway, Where Can I Go?’

When the word get to us that the slaves is free, the Mistress says I is free to go anywheres I want. And I tell her this talk about being free sounds like foolishment to me—anyway, where can I go? She just pat me on the shoulder and say I better stay right there with her, and that’s what I do for a long time. Then I hears about how the white folks down at Dallas pays big money for house girls and there I goes.

—Esther Easter, enslaved in Missouri, interviewed in Oklahoma, circa 1937, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration

‘Slaves Were Whooping and Laughing and Acting Like They Were Crazy’

The news went from plantation to plantation and while the slaves acted natural and some even more polite than usual, they prayed for freedom. Then one day I heard something that sounded like thunder and missus and marster began to walk around and act queer. The grown slaves were whispering to each other. Sometimes they gathered in little gangs in the grove. Next day I heard it again, boom, boom, boom. I went and asked missus “is it going to rain?” She said, “Mary, go to the ice house and bring me some pickles and preserves.” I went and got them. She ate a little and gave me some. Then she said, “You run along and play.”

In a day or two everybody on the plantation seemed to be disturbed and marster and missus were crying. Marster ordered all the slaves to come to the great house at nine o’clock. Nobody was working and slaves were walking over the grove in every direction. At nine o’clock all the slaves gathered at the great house and marster and missus came out on the porch and stood side by side. You could hear a pin drop everything was so quiet. Then marster said, “Good morning,” and missus said, “Good morning, children.” They were both crying. Then marster said, “Men, women and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.” Marster and missus then went into the house, got two large arm chairs, put them on the porch facing the avenue, and sat down side by side and remained there watching.

In about an hour there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road. It was the Yankee soldiers, they finally filled the mile long avenue reaching from marster’s house to the main Louisburg road and spread out over the mile square grove. The mounted men dismounted. The footmen stacked their shining guns and began to build fires and cook. They called the slaves, saying “You are free.” Slaves were whooping and laughing and acting like they were crazy. Yankee soldiers were shaking hands with the Negroes and calling them Sam, Dinah, Sarah, and asking them questions. They busted the door to the smoke house and got all the hams. They went to the icehouse and got several barrels of brandy, and such a time. The Negroes and Yankees were cooking and eating together. The Yankees told them to come on and join them, they were free. Marster and missus sat on the porch and they were so humble no Yankee bothered anything in the great house.

The slaves were awfully excited. The Yankees stayed there, cooked, eat, drank and played music until about night, then a bugle began to blow and you never saw such getting on horses and lining up in your life. In a few minutes they began to march, leaving the grove which was soon silent as a grave yard. They took marster’s horses and cattle with them and joined the main army and camped just across Cypress Creek . . . When they left the country [area], lot of the slaves went with them and soon there were none of marster’s slaves left. They wandered around for a year from place to place, fed and working most of the time at some other slave owner’s plantation and getting more homesick every day.

The second year after the surrender our marster and missus got on their carriage and went and looked up all the Negroes they heard of who ever belonged to them. Some who went off with the Yankees were never heard of again. When marster and missus found any of theirs they would say, “Well, come on back home.” My father and mother, two uncles and all their families moved back. Several of the young men and women who once belonged to him came back. Some were so glad to get back they cried, ’cause fare [food] had been mighty bad part of the time they were rambling around and they were hungry. When they got back marster would say, “Well you have come back home, have you,” and the Negroes would say, “Yes marster.” Most all spoke of them as missus and marster as they did before the surrender, and getting back home was the greatest pleasure of all.

—Mary Anderson, enslaved in North Carolina, interviewed in North Carolina, 1937, Federal Writers’ Project

‘They Seemed to Want to Get Closer to Freedom, So They’d Know What It Was’

It’s a funny thing how folks always want to know about the war. The war weren’t so great as folks suppose. Sometimes you didn’t knowed it was goin’ on. It was the endin’ of it that made the difference. That’s when we all wakes up that somethin’ had happened. . . .

Sometimes someone would come ’long and try to get us to run up North and be free. We used to laugh at that. There wasn’t no reason to run up North. All we had to do was to walk, but walk South, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico you could be free, They didn’t care what color you was, black, white, yellow, or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right. We would hear about ’em and how they was goin’ to be Mexicans. They brought up their children to speak only Mexican.

Me and my father and five brothers and sisters weren’t goin’ to Mexico. . . . But what I want to say is, we didn’t have no idea of runnin’ and escapin’. We was happy. We got our lickings, but just the same we got our fill of biscuits every time the white folks had ‘em. . . .

The end of the war, it come jus’ like that—like you snap your fingers. . . . How did we know it! Hallelujah broke out. . . . Everyone was a-singin’. We was all walkin’ on golden clouds. Hallelujah!

Union forever,
Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Although I may be poor,
I’ll never be a slave—
Shoutin’ the battle cry of freedom.

Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free.

It didn’t seem to make the whites mad, either. They went right on giving us food just the same. Nobody took our homes away, but right off colored folks started on the move. They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they’d know what it was—like it was a place or a city. . . . We knowed freedom was on us, but we didn’t know what was to come with it. We thought we was goin’ to get rich like the white folks. We thought we was goin’ to be richer than the white folks, ’cause we was stronger and knowed how to work, and the whites didn’t and they didn’t have us to work for them anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make ’em rich. . . . We couldn’t help stick to our masters. We couldn’t no more shoot ’em than we could fly. My father and me used to talk ’bout it. We decided we was too soft and freedom wasn’t goin’ to be much to our good even if we had a education.

—Felix Haywood, enslaved in Texas, interviewed in Texas, circa 1937, Federal Writers’ Project

‘I have never been free and I am goin’ to try it.’

When the war ended mother went to old marster and told him she was goin’ to leave. He told her she could not feed all her children, pay house rent, and buy wood, to stay on with him. Marster told father and mother they could have the house free and wood free, an’ he would help them feed the children, but mother said, “No, I am goin’ to leave. I have never been free and I am goin’ to try it. I am goin’ away and by my work and the help of the Lord I will live somehow.” Marster then said, “Well stay as long as you wish, and leave when you get ready, but wait until you find a place to go, and leave like folks.” Marster allowed her to take all her things with her when she left. The white folks told her goodbye.

—Hannah Plummer, enslaved in North Carolina, interviewed in North Carolina, circa 1937, Federal Writers’ Project