My Family’s Juneteenth History

 “Mom, remember you said you were going to take us to a Juneteenth parade this year,” the kids reminded me.  “Yes, I did say that,” I sighed out loud, but I thought to myself, “but, I had forgotten.”  Not wanting to break any (more) promises, I combed through the 2019 area event calendars for something we could attend and enjoy.  On our way to a celebration at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in Dallas, I began trying to recall all that I knew about our uniquely-Texas holiday.  I had the general idea that Texas slaves learned that they were freed later than slaves in other places, but I wanted and needed to know more.  There are numerous resources that thoroughly explain the history and significance of Juneteenth (see the references at the end of the page), and I continue to learn more about it every year. 

Although we focus on its effective date of January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued initially in 1862.  It was supposed to serve as a warning of ominous potentialities and as a military strategy to force surrender and cripple the military support provided by the Confederacy’s slave workforce.  The freedom offered to slaves was not a complete and universal one.  Rather, it was

  • temporary.  Under President Lincoln’s “war powers” authority, the Proclamation was an executive order applicable only for the duration of the Civil War, whose end was initiated on April 9, 1865 with General Lee’s surrender but only was officially recognized by President Andrew Johnson on August 20, 1866, after all Confederate armies had surrendered and all states had established federally compliant state governments.  Notably, Texas was the last state to present a suitable solution for governing itself.  
  • limited in scope.  The Proclamation affected only the slaves in the areas of Virginia that later would comprise West Virginia; regions occupied by Union forces (including Tennessee and 13 parishes in lower Louisiana); and areas held by rebel Confederate states (except the border, slave states of Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri).
  • and not really enforceable.  Nominally freed slaves could benefit from the Proclamation only if they escaped to Union territory or if they sought protection from the Union forces that entered rebel territory.  In the case of Texas, although many of its inhabitants fought as Confederate soldiers, the land itself was insulated from the ravages of actual battles (except for the Battle of Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, Texas).  Texas was either ignored or deemed unnavigable by the would-be harbingers of the news of freedom.  Moreover, information about the Emancipation Proclamation likely was concealed by local and incoming slaveowners and/or was widely unknown or disbelieved because of the illiteracy of many of the slaves and a tendency to perceive the news as rumor.    

In reflecting on the facts of the Emancipation Proclamation, I wanted to know how my Texas ancestors fared during those times.  I remembered finding photos of my great-great-grandmother, “Grandma Annie.”

Annie Rem Susberry, date unknown.  Courtesy of Keith Susberry.

She grew up in Fayette County, Texas, but her father, John Rem, was born in North Carolina. I knew, based on the 1890 U.S. “Veterans Census”, that John Rem was a Civil War Veteran and had served as a Private in North Carolina’s Company K, Regiment 37, from August 1864 to August 1865. When I first saw that 1890 record, I wondered about the circumstances under which he joined the Union and how, when, and why he had settled in Texas. Thankfully, my cousin Sheron Bruno, Vice President of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society-Houston Chapter, had secured and shared with me John Rem’s pension file, and that offered a wealth of information about his life.

Research tip:  Check the National Archives website to search for ancestors who may have served in the military.  Finding pension or other records could provide a wealth of information about a person’s early life, families, and activities prior to and after the war in which they served.  https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/pre-ww-1-records#natf85

Regarding John Rem’s becoming a Union soldier, his plans may have started taking shape with the signing of the Second Confiscation Act.   Enacted in the summer of 1862, the Second Confiscation Act enabled fit slaves who had escaped from rebel states to Union lines to be freed and allowed to enlist in the Union Army.  John Rem must have heard this news and eventually escaped his slave owner, “young Richard Nobles”, to work for the “government” rafting logs under the alias “John T. Baptist”.  Then, as a freed man under the protection of the Emancipation Proclamation, John Rem enlisted in New Bern, Craven County, North Carolina in the United States Colored Troops. 

Retrieved from http://www.thepastwhispers.com/Richmond_County.html

John stated that he had joined the Union as a member of the 14t h Heavy Artillery unit in early August 1864 and later was transferred to the Company K, 37th Regiment “Light Infantry”.  Military records show that he enlisted on August 29, 1864; at the time, he was noted to be 18 years old and was described as 5’6” with dark hair, eyes, and complexion.  He reported having served “mostly in Virginia and North Carolina”.  According to the North Carolina GenWeb Military Project (Sheppard, 2009), Company K was organized by Lieutenant Withington and “joined the Regiment in November, at Chapin’s Farm, Virginia, where the Company remained during the winter, drilling and receiving military instructions until February 1865.”  Apparently, the rest of the Regiment had moved on to North-East Station, Virginia, and Company K met the group there before marching with them to Raleigh, North Carolina, “against General Johnston, forming a junction at Mt. Olive, North Carolina, with General Sherman’s army.”  After Johnston’s surrender, Company K, along with the rest of Regiment 37, traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, in June; “in November, it was detailed to garrison Fort Macon, North Carolina, in connection with Company I.”

John Rem related that he did not serve in any battles and suffered from time to time from medical problems, including “debility” and rheumatism.  He said that he had served under Captain Houston (actually, the Captain’s name was S.B. Huested), and he recalled that his 1st Sergeant was Sam Kensey (his actual name was Sanders Kinsey).  He remembered at least a few of his fellow soldiers:  Edmond John (also known as Edward Johns; appointed as sergeant in 1865 and later deserted); Littleton T. King (appointed 5th Corporal in 1866); and Hannibal Barnes (also known as Hannibal Bond; appointed as a corporal shortly before mustering out in September 1865).

While John Rem and his comrades were fighting to end slavery in the United States, literally for once and for all, Blacks in Texas, who technically had been freed in 1863, still had to wait a while to receive the news. About two and a half years after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and over 1000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in order to announce and enforce General Orders No. 3, which stated,

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, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

G. Granger, Major General Commanding. F.W. Emory, Major and A.A. Gen
Exhibit at the Hall of State, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas. June 19, 2019. Courtesy, Tameka S. Miller

John Rem’s future wife in Texas, Elvira Davis, was just learning about her freedom.  In fact, her first child, born around the second half of 1865 during “the first year of the freedom of the colored people here,” was welcomed into the world as a free person.  The Freedman’s Bureau began to establish itself in Texas around September 1865, and around the same time, John was honorably discharged (September 12, 1865).  He married Harriet Morris on November 04, 1865 in Craven County, North Carolina, but reportedly left her to make his way to Texas in August of 1866.  This leads me to my second wonderment – how and why did John travel all the way to Texas?

To answer the questions surrounding John Rem’s move to Texas, I looked at some of the residents in the area where he would settle, Fayette County, Texas.  My search led me to the only Rhem family located in the area.  William Brock Rhem was born in Lenoir County, North Carolina but had lived in Onslow County, North Carolina (1850 Census) before relocating to Texas.  He very well could have been an acquaintance of the Nobles family that had owned John Rem.  In 1859, Rhem was murdered, and his wife, Sarah E. Rhem (nee Dunn), died in 1861.  The 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule recorded among Sarah’s (referred to here as Sallie E. Rhem) property ten slaves ranging in age from six months old to 32 years old.  However, by the time her estate was probated, only eight remained:  30 year-old Tom; 20 year-old Nice and 3 year-old Emma; 40 year-old Isaac and 5 year-old Reuben; and 35 year-old Polly, her 18-month old daughter Alice and 5 year-old James.  Given this information, one reason that John Rem migrated to Texas so soon after his discharge from the military was, perhaps, to reunite with people for whom he felt some affection or with whom he shared familial bonds (i.e., the original Rhem family and/or the Rhem freedmen, respectively).

Research tip:  Probate and succession records outline the estate of a deceased person and how it was administered.  Often, these records will include a will and/or information about family members, what and how property was distributed (including the names of slaves), and who became the guardians of the decedent’s minor children, for example.  Usually, you can find out if your ancestor (or a slaveowner) had a probate or succession record by contacting the County Clerk’s office in the county or parish where the person resided. 

Touching how John Rem traveled to Texas, I found an interesting document.  The Galveston, Texas division of the Freedmen’s Bureau published “Circular 24” in which transportation was guaranteed for freedmen who secured labor contracts for work across state borders.  These freedmen had to meet certain conditions (i.e., they must have been deemed impoverished enough to require support from the Government or they must have lived in areas where there was “great destitution”). Their employment sponsors also had to satisfy certain conditions (e.g., the employers would have to transport them to the designated work location as well as provide comfortable living arrangements, reasonable wages, and rations). Although I did not find any related documents dated August 1866, I did find a “Contract for Labor” dated February 09, 1867, in which Natt Holman contracted to hire 11 people to work for one year on his plantation in Fayette County, Texas.  As one of those laborers, John Rem agreed to a wage of $125.  He married Elvira Davis on May 02, 1868 in that same county, where he would reside until he died on December 18, 1920. 

United States, Freedmen’s Bureau Labor Contracts, Indenture and Apprenticeship Records, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2W3-ZQZR : accessed 19 June 2020), John Rehm, 09 Feb 1867; citing Employment, New Bern, Craven, North Carolina, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1909, Records of the field offices for the state of North Carolina, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned lands, 1865-1872 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 39; FHL microfilm 2,427,044.

So, that’s the story of John Rem, in terms of his role in the history of American slavery and its demise.  In a way, John Rem represented opportunity.  He seized the chance to create his own freedom.  It was opportunity deferred for Texas slaves, who had received the news of their emancipation seemingly as an afterthought.  Nevertheless, the order read on June 19, 1865 was a harbinger of a greater future, a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.   Now, we commemorate that day as Juneteenth, for better or worse, for what it was – a new beginning for Blacks in Texas and beyond.  The Lone Star State fittingly became the first to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday on January 1, 1980.  Most states have followed suit, recognizing it as a day of observance, if not a state holiday.  What makes Juneteenth even more important to me this year is how it offers some insight into how my ancestors and yours may have been impacted.

References

Gates, Henry Louis.  “What is Juneteenth?”  The African Americans:  Many Rivers to Cross.  Public Broadcasting Station. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/

King, Joyce.  “How Juneteenth turned Texas’ shameful slave legacy into an international celebration of freedom.” The Dallas Morning News, June 2018. Retrieved from https://www.dallasnews.com/ opinion/commentary/2017/06/14/black-texans-turned-states-shameful-slave-legacy-international-celebration-freedom

Pruitt, Sarah.  “Why was the Civil War Actually Ended 16 months After Lee Surrendered.”  History.  A&E Television Networks, 05 March 2018. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/why-the-civil-war-actually-ended-16-months-after-lee-surrendered

Sheppard, Kay (2009). History of the Thirty-Seventh Regt, U.S.C. Infantry. Retrieved from http://www.ncgenweb.us/ncusct/37usct11.htm

Wikipedia contributors. “Emancipation Proclamation.” Wikipedia, The FreeEncyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jun. 2019. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title= Emancipation_ Proclamation&oldid=899900765

Published by GenealogyGriot

Tameka Miller is a genealogist, psychologist, and full-time homemaker and homeschool educator. She has been a genealogy researcher and family historian for over 20 years.

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