Like a boxer sparring with his rival, year after year Juneteenth was strengthened by the contest its committee members had to wage against the Jim Crow faithful of Texas, who, in the years following Reconstruction, rallied around their version of history in an effort to glorify (and whitewash) past cruelties and defeats. When whites forbade blacks from using their public spaces, black people gathered near rivers and lakes and eventually raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites, among them Emancipation Park in Houston and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia.
The constant interaction between black slaves and white masters (as well as blacks and whites in general) created an interdependence that led to the development of a distinctive Virginia culture. That interdependence was as destructive as it was unequal. The horrors endured by enslaved African Americans, whether physical or mental, were numerous. White Virginians were caught up in a system that measured social distinction based upon ownership of slaves. Economic reliance on slavery, fears about the consequences of emancipation, and unyielding racial prejudice and cultural bias all contributed to the continuation of slavery in an era of independence.
How did the slaves react to the whippings, the endless labor for others’ profit, the lack of freedom? Some like Nat Turner rebelled. In 1831, he led a slave revolt that left nearly 60 white persons dead in Virginia. Such insurrections were relatively rare in the South. White people outnumbered slaves in most places, possessed firearms, and could call on the power of the government to suppress rebellions. Nevertheless, slaves everywhere found other ways to resist their bondage. They sabotaged tools and crops, pretended illness, and stole food from the master’s own kitchen. The most effective way that a slave could retaliate against an owner was to run away. It is estimated that 60,000 black people fled slavery before the Civil War.