HISTORY + RACISM

How The Vagrancy Act of 1866 Turned Black Freedom Into a Crime

After Juneteenth, laws forced Black Americans to labor

Allison Wiltz
Published in
7 min readJun 11, 2023

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Woman holding flowers near her face | Photo by Polina Kovaleva via Pexels

As Juneteenth approaches, the nation is preparing to celebrate Black Americans' freedom. Specifically, the holiday will commemorate the moment when 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to demand the release of the 250,000 Black people from slavery — they became "free by executive decree, on June 19, 1865. However, many people fail to realize that White southerners continued to challenge Black people's freedom long after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered. One illustration of this point would be the language used in Field Order №3: "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." In other words, even after Black Americans became free, White people expected them to remain working for the same families who enslaved them, and they were warned idleness would not be tolerated, which undermined the very concept of liberty. You are free, but you must work for those who brutalized you is not the win many Black Americans hoped and fought for.

Freedom for Black Americans meant they were free to work and earn money for their efforts. However, it wasn't until 1938 that the federal government announced a minimum wage policy, so there was no guarantee that money Black Americans earned would afford them the same luxuries as White families enjoyed, like the ability to buy a home, pay for food, water, clothing, transportation, or, medical expenses. So, Black Americans were given freedom in a land where racism cruelly limited their educational and employment opportunities. And the freedom Black Americans gained during Juneteenth came with another caveat. When Congress ratified the 13th Amendment, technically abolishing slavery, they conceded that slavery would be illegal "except as a punishment for crime," meaning states could still force Black people, once convicted, to work without pay. Even petty crimes could be used to round up large numbers of newly freedmen and women and force them to work on the same plantations their forefathers did, essentially…

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Allison Wiltz
Momentum

Womanist Scholar bylines @ Momentum, Oprah Daily, ZORA, GEN, EIC of Cultured #WEOC Founder allisonthedailywriter.com https://ko-fi.com/allyfromnola