The Truth About Juneteenth June 19th is traditionally embraced as the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned they'd been freed. But historian Hari Jones says many are misinformed about the true significance of the holiday. On a recent visit to the museum, the program helps listeners get it right.

The Truth About Juneteenth

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I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin. This is Tell Me More from NPR News.

We had hoped to continue our conversation with World War II veteran Thomas McPhatter. We are experiencing some technical difficulties and hope to get to that soon. But for now we are going to turn and talk about another war. This one involves African-American soldiers and their role defending the Union during the Civil War era. We decided to take a road trip to the African-American Civil War Memorial and to the African-American Civil War Museum both located in the U street area of Washington, D.C. At the memorial we caught up with Hari Jones, the Assistant Director at the African-American Civil War Museum, and we start, at first, talking about the name of the statue and its history.

Mr. HARI JONES (Assistant Director, African-American Civil War Museum): Our statue is called The Spirit of Freedom. The artist is Ed Hamilton out of Lewisville, Kentucky and we dedicated this statue July 18th, 1998.

CORLEY: Now, we have a centerpiece where we have soldiers with their rifles or with their guns.

Mr. JONES: That is the statue of The Spirit of Freedom. And on the wall behind the statue is where we have the 209,145 names of all the soldiers that were officially brought into an organization called the Bureau of United States Colored Troops. A separate bureau of the U. S. army created in May of 1863 to accommodate soldiers of African descent.

CORLEY: Now you have - we have a wall with names etched on to them, similar what to people might associate with the Vietnam Memorial.

Mr. JONES: Correct. That's correct. And we get all of our names from official service records that can be found at the national archives. So every name on our wall is backed by a paper trail.

CORLEY: So how many soldiers in all. Was this it? Or where there soldiers, I guess you wouldn't call them soldiers, but people in the Navy as well? Or...

Mr. JONES: Yes, on our statue we have a sailor, but we don't have any sailors names on our wall of honor because the U.S. Navy during the Civil War was integrated making it very difficult to identify all the men of African descent that would have served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. We do know from reports from naval officers after the war, that 25 percent of the Federal Navy was comprised of men of African descent.

CORLEY: Twenty-five percent?

Mr. JONES: Twenty-five percent.


Mr. JONES: In an integrated Navy.

CORLEY: The Navy was integrated, but...

Mr. JONES: Yes.

CORLEY: But the army was not.

Mr. JONES: That's correct.

CORLEY: And what areas of the country were these troops from?

Mr. JONES: The vast majority came from the southern states, with Louisiana having the highest representation, Kentucky second, Tennessee third, and Mississippi fourth. So, it's mostly out of the South. Ohio has a large number as far as the northern states. Ohio has the largest number of African-Americans that served...

CORLEY: All right.

Mr. JONES: Of the northern states.

CORLEY: We are speaking with Hari Jones, the Assistant Director of the African-American Civil War Museum here in Washington D.C. If you don't mind, let's go and head on over to the museum.

Mr. JONES: Let's go.

CORLEY: So now, here we are in the museum.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

CORLEY: Fast walk. But there are an incredible number of pictures here on the walls and I want to start out with one, it says, Come and Join us, Brothers. Now we see several African-Americans in uniform, and what is this one all about?

Mr. JONES: That is a recruiting poster from Philadelphia, and this recruiting poster tells you where you go and enlist. Recruiting actively begins in the north after the Emancipation Proclamation. And Philadelphia became a major recruiting depot, like Baltimore and Maryland, both of those spots in the north are the most - some of the most prolific recruiting cities for United States colored troops.

CORLEY: Well, tell me a little about the legal progression here of African-Americans in the army. I understand it was illegal at first for them to participate?

Mr. JONES: When the Civil War began, it was illegal, but Congress in 1792 had passed a militia act that banned the enlistment of men of African descent into the Federal army. It wasn't until after McClellan's defeat in the Peninsula Campaign that Congress, appreciating the fact that the Federal army needed help, passed the Militia Act of 1862 that gave President Lincoln the authority to recruit men of African descent into the Federal army. President Lincoln does not act on that authority immediately, however. His Secretary of State William Seward out of New York, advised him not to act on the authority immediately because if he did it would be clear that the government was quote, "crying out for help." So what President Lincoln decided to do was to wait until he could claim a victory on the battlefield so that he could mask his cry for help.

MARTIN: And what was that battle?

Mr. JONES: The Battle of Antietam. More Federal soldiers were actually killed in the battle on September 17th, 1862 than Confederate soldiers, but the Confederates withdrew from the battlefield so the Federal army claimed victory. And five days later, President Lincoln publishes the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation where he warns the ten states in rebellion, if you don't lay down your arms and come back in the Union by January 1, all persons held as slaves in your states will be declared forever free. Well, the rebels do not believe they are losing the war, in fact, they called the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Sharpsburg, a draw, not a defeat. But to the northern public, President Lincoln appears to be acting from a position of strength, not weakness, and on January 1, 1863, declares forever free all persons held as slaves in the ten states that do not accept him as president.

MARTIN: So nobody's really free?

Mr. JONES: The law is not enforced in those states because those states do not accept Federal authority, so an executive order from Washington isn't recognized by the governors of those states. The only way anyone is going to be set free in those states is if those states are forcibly brought back into the union, and the Emancipation Proclamation is ultimately an agreement that the president makes with men of African descent that if you'll come into the Federal army and help overthrow the ten state governments in rebellion, then and only then, are all persons held as slaves in those states forever free.

MARTIN: All right. And I understand you have a favorite photo in the whole collection.

Mr. JONES: Yes. A print from "Harper's Weekly."

MARTIN: OK. And what is this photo and why is it your favorite?

Mr. JONES: This print is of the Federal army entering Richmond, Virginia on April 3rd, 1865. You can see in the print clearly that the men in Federal uniform are men of African descent. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was captured by the 25th Army Corps. Every regiment in the 25th Army Corps was a United States colored troop regiment. General Grant assigned an army corps comprised of only United States colored troops to capture Richmond, making it an indisputable historical fact that American soldiers of African descent captured and occupied the capital of the Confederacy. Well reported in the newspapers of that day, but rarely reported in books of this day.

MARTIN: So it was former slaves who took over the capital of the Confederacy?

Mr. JONES: That's correct. In fact in this particular print you have Chaplain Garland White. Chaplain Garland White was born enslaved in Richmond, Virginia, sold to a Georgia senator, escapes via the Underground Railroad to Canada, returns to the United States, becomes a recruiter for the 28th United States Color Troop, while a pastor in the AME Church becomes a private in the regiment, and then he is promoted to major and becomes the chaplain of the regiment, but on the morning of April 3rd, 1865, he is selected to lead the regiment into Richmond. And when he's marching down Main Street that early morning, an elderly woman spotted him. She goes to a Union soldier and asks who is that young man leading those soldiers, he looks like my young Garland. That was Garland White's mother. His homecoming, his reunion…

MARTIN: What an incredible story.

Mr. JONES: On the day he leads the liberating force into Richmond.

MARTIN: Incredible. Incredible. Let's talk a little bit about the Emancipation Proclamation in Juneteenth. Juneteenth is observed really as the African-American Emancipation Day in some circles.

Mr. JONES: You know, and I think that's appropriate if we understand why it's the Emancipation Day. When we understand that with the proclamation, no one is set free, simply because President Lincoln signed it.

MARTIN: So it was kind of a graduated installment, I guess, of freedom?

Mr. JONES: Yes. I would actually say it is freedom won on the battlefield. You have to conquer, literally, the state government, in order to be free. If the Texas state government had not been conquered than there would be no June 19th.

MARTIN: All right. So it was colored troops that had a lot to do?

Mr. JONES: Absolutely. Absolutely. Colored troops are critical in the Civil War, period. Their story has been one of the best kept secrets in American history, but they are critical, and when you track the fall of these various states, color troops are playing critical roles in every one of those states, whether it's soldiers on the frontline or whether it's spies, scouts, or guides, saboteurs, counter guerilla, guerilla activities, they are critical in the Union war effort.

MARTIN: So why do you think the common perception is so different, particularly about Juneteenth?

Mr. JONES: Concerted effort in the early to mid twentieth century to suppress the story. We see it very clearly in the behavior of the War Department, now of course the Department of Defense, in a lot of their official material, even films, where they will tell stories of African-American soldiers in American history, but leave everything about the Civil War out of the film on African-American soldiers.

MARTIN: We are here at the museum now, but there is a significant date in addition to Juneteenth, happening for the memorial itself about a month away.

Mr. JONES: July 18th is our tenth year anniversary. That's when this memorial was dedicated. General Colin Powell was present with our founding director Dr. Frank Smith on that very warm July day, and we dedicated this memorial to these American freedom fighters. And we will be celebrating our tenth anniversary with three days of activities. We'll have a prayer breakfast and have reenactors and tents set up, and then on the 17th we'll have an event at Arlington Cemetery, a sunrise service, and the 18th, event at the memorial and then also at the convention center we'll have a gala for descendents. We've had thousands of descendents who have come to us telling us, I have an ancestor on that wall and we've archived a number of their stories.

MARTIN: And lastly, what are you hoping people know or remember really about Juneteenth as it's celebrated?

Mr. JONES: That it marks the day when the mission of African descent soldiers in the Civil War was completed. They had performed their side of the duty. They helped preserve the Union and maintained the supremacy of the constitution, and in doing so under the banner of the U.S. Constitution they had secured the blessings of liberty for themselves in their posterity, literally through this crucible for liberty becoming the quintessential Americans.

MARTIN: Hari Jones is the assistant director at the African-American Civil War Museum. Thank you so much for today.

Mr. JONES: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

CORLEY: And we're back now in the studio. Remember with Tell Me More the conversation never ends and we want to know how do you celebrate Juneteenth day. What does it mean to you and your family, and did our visit to the African-American Civil War Museum and Memorial help you gain a better understanding of what Juneteenth is really all about? To tell us more about what you think go to and click on the Tell Me More page. You can also call our comment line at area code 202-842-3522, that's 202-842-3522. You never know, we might feature your comments in our weekly Backtalk segment.

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