“My people weren’t slaves. We were always free.”
That’s what my Great-Grandmother Handy told me while growing up whenever the subject was broached. I really didn’t understand it at the time. A young kid who’d been taught, as most people have in U.S. History classes, that if you were Black in the south and living in America pre-1865 you were a slave. But, my Great-Grandmother Handy was proud and adamant and we knew not to question or argue with anything she said. Therefore, I just took this statement at face value.
Now, my Great-Grandparents lived in New Orleans and even as kids we were made somewhat aware that not all Black people were slaves. New Orleans had a large Free People of Color community all through its existence and there are many folks in New Orleans that claim, some correctly and some incorrectly, to be descended from them. Those that claim this do so with a sense of pride (and more than a fair amount of class distinction). So, I just sort of assumed that’s what she meant.
As I’ve grown older, heard and read more family stories, and finally did some research of my own, I found out the real story behind the statement.
My Great-Grandmother’s Grandfather was a Blacksmith in Africa. He was hired by a plantation owner in Kentucky and his passage paid to come work for him. Yes, you read that right. He was hired — paid — for his work. He was not a slave. He came to America as a free man and was given “free papers” to prove it . So, he was free, with job and, importantly, the protection and guarantee of freedom granted by his white boss. In fact, he did so well for himself that he was able to “purchase” his wife who was a slave and, thus, set her free.
They had children and, the thing about “freedom” in much of the slave-owning US at that time is that it was “inherited”. In other words, if you were a free man married to a free woman then your kids would inherit that freedom (and the free papers that proved it). Thus, they would be free. If they, then, were able to marry a free or freed person, then their kids would be free and so on.
And now, you know, that my Great-Grandmother Handy told the truth. She was the descendent of free Black people. I recount this story today mainly to recount that History is not binary — it is nuanced. That for every “fact” of history you will often find many exceptions. Not all Black people in the south were slaves, some were free.
On this day, Juneteenth, we rightfully celebrate the emancipation of those that were slaves in the United States. We celebrate our Brothers and Sisters for which bondage was a very real and traumatic thing. We celebrate freedom. But let us also remember that freedom is not, should never be, and should never have been a commodity, as it has been from this country’s very exception — like a coin of gold that can be passed down, taken or given by some entity, protected by an army, or granted to some and not others. Freedom is and should always be a human right. That is where we always should have been in this country. That is what this country espouses itself to be. That is the American dream we have yet to live up to. That is the promise we still need to keep working to achieve.