The Story of Katie Darling and the Complex Jubilation of Juneteenth

The Story of Katie Darling and the Complex Jubilation of Juneteenth

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Library of Congress, Getty Images)

Legally, Katie Darling was already free on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, under federal instruction to occupy the Confederate state. Backed by almost two thousand Union soldiers, Granger stood on a balcony in the center of town reading General Orders, No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free... this involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves...” he began.

The announcement was enormous news, but it came to Galveston a full two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and six months after the 13th Amendment, which declared all enslaved African descendants freed, had been passed by Congress. Texas, one of the last outposts of slavery, had over 250,000 enslaved people; in addition, hundreds of thousands of others were forced to migrate there by slave owners in efforts to escape the Union Army. Some in Galveston that day fled town before Major Granger finished speaking, looking to embrace their newfound freedom immediately. Many relished the moment, cherishing the day that would eventually become known as Juneteenth. These annual celebrations, which began in 1866 and have been commemorated ever since, became an occasion freed people would treasure for generations. Juneteenth marked a monumental change in history for African-Americans; historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner explained that it offered “travelers between slavery and freedom to mark a point in their lives, a ‘red spot on the calendar’ that bonded them together as a free people, as Americans.” More than the Civil War’s end, more than the 4th of July, the day gave way to a powerful, collective memory of Black people rallying around their liberation.

But the day wasn’t a simple break with the past, either. Others were targeted for attempting to leave upon the announcement, the former Confederate mayor threatening them for leaving their former masters. Throughout Texas, many plantation owners delayed the news or waited until a government official showed up to enforce the law. Outside the city of Marshall, Katie Darling, 16, would remain on the plantation where she was born into slavery for several more years; her white mistress refused to let her leave until some freed people in Darling’s community organized to secure her freedom. Her story, among others, raised the question for me: how long will freedom for Black people be deferred? A resilient memory in history, Juneteenth is not just a celebration of freedom, but also a reminder of the fight that continues in gaining it.

I’ll never forget the day I learned about Juneteenth. My mother was cooking dinner over the stove, smells of curry chicken wafting through the air as I told her about my school day. I was eight at the time, and my fourth-grade class had just begun to learn about slavery. My mom, as usual, had me go over the details.

“Ms. Brown said that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emanpisation Procklapation,” I told her.

“Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves,” she replied with frustration. “The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free them either. Black people freed themselves.”

That night, my mother would search the internet with me so I could learn more about Juneteenth, showing me pictures of celebrations and looking at recorded stories from former slaves. As I began to celebrate the holiday in the years thereafter, it was the story of Katie Darling that stuck with me the most. Darling was born into slavery in 1849, telling her story at 88 years old to interviewers as part of a WPA Federal Writers’ Project, recording oral histories from the formerly enslaved. She grew up with three brothers, Peter, Adam, and Willie; their mother died in slavery and their father escaped North. Her labor included wet-nursing and caring for the plantation owner’s children, as well as milking the cows.

Speaking decades later, she still vividly remembered the battles of the Civil War, when Union and Confederate soldiers met at Mansfield: “Massas’s field am all tore up with cannon holes and ever’ time a cannon fire, missy go off in a rage. One time when a cannon fire, she say to me, ‘You li’l black wench, you niggers ain’t gwine be free. You’s made to work for white folks.’” When her master came back at the end of the war, he planned to abide by the order to let them go. But her mistress was determined to defer her freedom even further. Even with the order of emancipation, Darling stayed at the plantation: “Missy whip me after the war jist like she did ’fore,” she said. It was years before she would escape.

Juneteenth, also known as “Jubilee Day,” commemorates the last place that freedom reached the enslaved. Beginning in Texas, the holiday’s first celebrations involved community gatherings centered around church services, readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and political rallies. During the early 20th century, the holiday would become more popularized and shift into what it largely is today, including street fairs, food, music, and historical reenactments. With the Great Migration especially, the celebration traveled North and across the country. Most states now observe it as a holiday or day of observance.

More than a century and a half since its first celebration, Juneteenth stands to many as a stark example of Black people gaining jurisdiction, particularly during Reconstruction. It is a tradition passed down over the generations through families and communities, rather than being included in history curriculums; in 2019, a tweet urging followers to “Retweet if you don’t remember learning about Juneteenth in school” went viral with over 215,000 shares. As protests surrounding George Floyd’s death are enlivened across the country, the question of freedom for Black Americans is more relevant than ever.

Though American history often fixates on the idea of prompt independence, fighting for freedom after emancipation was quite common, individually and collectively. Patsy Mitchner, a formerly enslaved woman settled in Raleigh, North Carolina after the Civil War, described the difficulty that many experiencing emancipation for the first time had in establishing their new lives. With limited resources, some who had once “prayed for freedom” went back to their former masters, unsure where else to go. “Slavery was a bad thing, and freedom, of the kind we got, with nothin’ to live on, was bad,” Mitchner told an interviewer for the WPA project. “Two snakes full of poison. One lying with his head pointing north, the other with his head pointing south. Their names was slavery and freedom.” While being interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston, Cudjo Lewis, the last known slave-ship survivor, described wanting to go back to Africa, but not having enough money to do so and grieving. “After dey free us, we so glad, we makee de drum and beat it lak in de Affica soil,” he told Hurston. “We glad we free, but we cain stay wid de folks what own us no mo’. Where we goin’ live, we doan know.”

Even a woman as famous for her courage and impetus as Harriet Tubman spoke of the unfamiliarity of liberation: “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”

“There was some jubilation. But if you’ve been a slave all your life, and your mother was a slave, and her mother before her was a slave, and so forth and so on, all you know is slavery,” said Gwen Ragsdale, historian and co-curator of Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery in Philadelphia, in an interview with me. “We were slaves on Sunday and free on Monday. So when you were told that you were free with only the clothes on your back, freedom meant almost nothing. Free to do what? Free to go where? We didn’t even know how to react, and many didn’t—many just stayed on the plantation that they had been enslaved on and went on being slaves. So freedom came gradually. It was something they had to actively keep fighting for.”

Ragsdale describes Juneteenth as a “pivotal part of American history”—but not because it marks a concrete line between slavery and freedom. “It showed how the white man was still able to keep us in bondage long after we were legally emancipated. I think it speaks more to the hold Caucasians had over us more than how the slaves accepted their freedom. In many ways, we’re still grappling with that bondage today.” 155 years later, the fight against systemic racism continues. In the wake of injustices like the devastating cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, it isn’t clear where the holiday stands on America’s consciousness. More pointedly, it isn’t clear where Black liberation stands in a world that still goes to blood-soaked, cruel lengths to mask and defer it. Lengths that for generations, Black people have striven to resist, to combat, to outrun.

Each Juneteenth, I have considered who my ancestors were and might have been. Being a Black American has complicated that narrative for me and many others. Often, the what-ifs and how-comes of the search process make it far too emotional beyond the already-treacherous task of tracking “slave” records, and it’s more complicated than swabbing a mouth for a 23andMe kit. More than only who they were, I want to know when they became free.

Though some of them may have achieved freedom upon the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or even the 13th Amendment, the backlash of a racist society did not go away. Similarly, Juneteenth was not a day that immediately allowed people to escape. Confederate government officials barred Black people from leaving their white masters, while others who did escape were rounded up and forced into military service for the Union Army. Even in Northern states, discrimination ran rampant. In the decades that followed the Civil War, dangerous and oppressive structures like Jim Crow and convict leasing arose across the country. Today, recognizing the experiences of the enslaved can serve as an important reminder of the experiences of Black Americans today.

“We knowed what was goin’ on in [the war] all the time,” Felix Haywood, a former slave during the Civil War, told a WPA interviewer. “We all felt like heroes and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.”

Like today, Black Americans imagined what they thought freedom to look like and aimed to establish it. Despite circumstances, they imagined Juneteenth as being more than simply an announcement. More than a declaration, it was a day that America’s dishonesty unraveled. Juneteenth represents not only an unchaining but furthermore, a testament to Black selfhood. In reality, Black people were already free. The Confederacy had actively kept this news away from them. It was the self-realization of enslaved Black people that changed everything. If America was dishonest about that, what else have they been dishonest about? The experiences of former slaves continue to revolutionize present-day movements, much like the celebration of Juneteenth did during the Civil Rights era. Organizers are demanding prompt changes, demanding freedom that Blacks envisioned on Juneteenth.

Communities are devoted to celebrating this year’s Juneteenth despite the pandemic. In Austin, Texas, “Stay Black and Live: A Virtual Juneteenth Celebration” is running in collaboration with several community organizations. Similarly, an online festival based in New York will include music, performances, and a showcase of Black-owned businesses. Athenia Rodgers, an organizer of the event for the last 11 years, sees Juneteenth as a form of protest. “Juneteenth is a celebration we have coined as entertainment and fun, but also education and empowerment,” she said in an interview. “Helping to create a new language and new vision in the community is important. Rather than just showing, we have to also tell. If we’re gonna win, it has to include all of those things. How we get involved, how we take a stand, how we change the narrative.”

An eventual six years after legal emancipation, Darling’s community’s fight for her freedom prevailed. The mistress threatened her with one hundred lashings for not keeping the plantation’s cows and calves separate. No matter how much the mistress wanted to defer Darling’s emancipation, freedom was imminent. That exchange was the last they ever had. “I don’t know whether them calves was ever penned or not, ‘cause Peter was waitin’ for me at the lot and takes me to live with him on the Ware place.”

Darling would go on to marry and have children. She would settle in Marshall, Texas.

“I’s so happy to git away from that old devil missy, I don’t know what to do, and I stays there sev’ral years and works out here and there for money. Then I marries and moves here and me and my man farms and nothin’ ‘citin’ done happened.”

Finally, those in her community found freedom for Darling, just as protestors are fighting for freedom today.

Recently, I asked my mom why she felt the need to tell me that Lincoln’s signing the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery. “I realized a long time ago that Black history isn’t taught to Black children in an uplifting way,” she said. “And they focus on slavery, so it makes Black children feel bad about themselves, about who they are. And so I wanted to instill in you, I didn’t want you to feel the way I felt when I was learning about enslavement and wanted you to get more of the truth of what happened, and how Black people fought for themselves. ”

“It wasn’t some white savior that swooped in and saved us,” she continued. “We saved ourselves. Because you want to instill pride.”

Darling did not achieve freedom on Juneteenth, but her life had meaning nonetheless. The collective efforts to ensure her independence exudes itself through this year’s celebrations of Juneteenth. Katie was more than her enslavement—Katie was a human. She had the ability to realize her entitlement to freedom, albeit delayed, despite heavy circumstances. Her humanity was not entangled in the chains or brandishes she wore; her humanity just was. Juneteenth reminds those who celebrate it of this humanity, of the fight to establish Granger’s unassuming words as a reality.

Lindsey Kiah Norward is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and storyteller who primarily writes about history and culture in America. She is a recent graduate of NYU’s Global Journalism and Africana Studies joint master’s program.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

With this great piece of history I am requisitioning our upcoming small group solstice celebration Sunday to supplant it (using the light of the solstice as background metaphor to shine on what we will celebrate instead: the Juneteenth . . . but, not the Juneteenth itself, because it is so clear that neither the cavalry that day, nor the Proclamation, nor President Lincoln, nor any of the ‘slavors’ (whites), freed black people as a whole. Nor are they yet free. We continue to lie to ourselves, just as I, at 76, first learned this week of the Juneteenth. So we will celebrate the beginning of real hope that the truth will prevail and that especially those of us so privileged in so many ways will find each our own paths to join the collective effort to reach real equality. In the end we are all of one race - human - it is up to us all to live that truth.