This Juneteenth, those are the feelings I’m channeling: grief and gratitude, even amid the silliness of America’s pageantry.

My grandmother Clarice was born in Pelham, Texas, a freedmen’s town. She took us grandchildren back for homecoming most years, sometimes even had us pick cotton, reminding us, “You’ve got to know your history.” She also told us of the folks she knew in Pelham as a child, some of whom were born enslaved, a fact that horrified me. Clarice always refused my sympathies.

“Child, don’t be believing what folks say about how bad slavery was,” she’d explain. “Everybody had a job, a place to stay and something to eat. Now if somebody came and paid your rent, you wouldn’t be sitting up talking about you wanna leave, would you?”

This dumbfounded me, until I realized she was mostly joking. But there was something deeper in her response. I eventually learned more about the violence that met newly emancipated Black Texans. Ku Klux Klansmen, along with local officials and everyday citizens, terrorized freedmen at will and without repercussions. They burned churches and homes, intimidated those who sought employment, and worse. Gen. Joseph Jones Reynolds, a commander of the Department of Texas during Reconstruction, commented in 1868, “The murder of Negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them.” The Equal Justice Initiative has tried, reporting that more than 2,000 Black women, men and children were victims of racial terrorist lynchings during Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877.

Slavery was awful, no doubt, but emancipation brought its own unique cruelties. Formerly enslaved Texans were forced to craft lives from less than scratch; choose new names; attempt to reunite with stolen partners, siblings, children. They faced daily threats of jail or worse because of the new Black codes that severely restricted their freedom — their freedom to work, but also their freedom to be unemployed or even to stand still for too long.

The more I learned, the more I understood my grandmother’s perspective. She’d heard the testimonies of those who’d had to navigate both the tragedy of slavery and the terror of emancipation. She couldn’t let me underestimate the enormous price our people had paid to be free.

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