Temple “Tempie” Cummins stoically stares at the camera with her arms folded in her lap, sitting stiffly in a chair in her dusty, barren backyard with her weather-beaten wooden shack behind her. Her dark, creased face reflects years of poverty and worry.
The faded black and white image of Cummins from 1937 was snapped by a historian who stopped by her home in Jasper, Texas, to ask her about her childhood during slavery. Cummins, who did not know her exact age, shared stories of uninterrupted woe until she recounted how she and her mother discovered that they had been freed.
She said her mother, a cook for their former slave owner’s family, liked to hide in the chimney corner to eavesdrop on dinner conversations. One day in 1865, she overheard her owner say that slavery had ended, but he wasn’t going to let his slaves know until they harvested “another crop or two.”
“When mother heard that she say she slip out the chimney corner and crack her heels together four times and shouts, ‘I’s free, I’s free,’ ” Cummins told the historian, who recorded her story for a New Deal writers’ project that collected the narratives of the formerly enslaved during the Great Depression. “Then she runs to the field, ‘gainst marster’s will and tol’ all the other slaves and they quit work.”
That story is one of the first recorded memoires of an experience that would inspire the creation of Juneteenth, an annual holiday celebrating the end of slavery that the US will commemorate this Monday. It marks the moment in June of 1865 when Union troops arrived in Texas to inform enslaved African Americans that they were free by executive decree. Many people like Cummins in remote areas of Texas and elsewhere did not know that they were free as their White owners hid the news from them.
Tempie Cummins, who was formerly enslaved, shared her story with a historian who recorded it for a New Deal writers’ project. – Library of Congress
Juneteenth has since become known as “America’s Second Independence Day.” Now a federal holiday, it will be celebrated by parades, proclamations, and ceremonies throughout the US. Though it commemorates a moment when enslaved African Americans were freed, the US is still held captive by several myths about slavery and people like Cummins.
One of the biggest myths that historians and storytellers have successfully challenged in recent years is that enslaved African Americans were docile, passive victims who had to wait until White abolitionists and “The Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln freed them. Black soldiers, for example, played a pivotal role in winning the Civil War. This new understanding of slavery has led to a rhetorical shift: It’s no longer proper to refer to people like Cummins as simply “slaves.”
“There’s been a shift in the historical community attempting to not define the period or the people by what was done to them in the sense that their identity becomes a noun, a slave, but rather that they are that they were in the process of being enslaved,” says Tobin Miller Shearer, a historian and director of African American Studies at the University of Montana.
“There were slavers who did that to them,” he says, “but there’s more to their identity than what was being done to them.”
Yet other myths about slavery persist, in part, because of the sheer enormity and brutality of slavery.
“The enslavement of an estimated ten million Africans over a period of almost four centuries in the Atlantic slave trade was a tragedy of such scope that it is difficult to imagine, much less comprehend,” Albert J. Raboteau wrote in “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South.”
Here are three other myths about slavery that historians say persist:
Myth No. 1: African Americans were ‘freed’ after the Civil War ended
There is a popular conception that the formerly enslaved were freed after the Civil War ended. But many had to continually fight for their freedom because so many Whites still tried to keep them in captivity and were willing to use deceit and violence to do so. READ MORE