Juneteenth: The cotton-pickin’ truth

Clarence Glover Jr, known as Professor Freedom, is dressed as a U.S. Colored Troop officer as he plays an African drum. He is standing beside a photo of him picking cotton in his Dallas-area cotton field. – Photo courtesy of Sankofa Education Services



Sankofa Education Services


“The primary product that will elevate us from poverty is cotton, and we cannot do this without the help of the slaves.”

– Stephen F. Austin, The Father of Texas


Thus are the words that planted the mental seeds that gave birth to what would become known as Texas.

“Indeed, for Austin, gaining a seaport at Galveston would serve the same purpose as gaining legal protections for slavery from Mexico City: both were necessary conditions for developing a cotton empire in Texas,” stated Andrew Torget in his book Seeds of Empire Cotton, Slavery and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850.

The Texas State Historical Association would further say of Torget and the newcomers to Northern Mexico.

“Their economy, dependent on agriculture, was concentrated first on subsistence farming and herding and then on production of cotton as a cash crop. The global revolution in cotton that occurred during the early nineteenth century brought immigrants to plant what historian Andrew Torget has called the “Seeds of Empire” in the rich soil of Texas. And along with cotton production came the introduction of what southerners called their “Peculiar Institution” slavery. By 1846 Texas had more than 30,000 Black slaves and produced even larger number of bales of cotton.”

As we celebrate the first National Juneteenth Holiday, we must endeavor to go beyond celebratory symbolism and come to understand the deeper meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth.  To do so, will require a deeper understanding of the role cotton played in the economy of the South and the use of enslaved African labor that gave rise to ‘King Cotton,’” TSHA stated.

It was 1793, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin – short for cotton engine. It revolutionized cotton production by reducing the time it took to process raw cotton which had been done by hand thereby increasing the number of enslaved Africans needed to raise, gin and bale cotton.

“Many stakeholders benefited from the cotton economy-plantation owners in the South, banks in the North, shipping merchants, and the textile industry in Great Britain,” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, in his PBS Series, The African Americans, Many Rivers to Cross, The Cotton Economy and Slavery. “Cotton transformed the United States, made fertile land in the Deep South, from Georgia to Texas, extraordinarily valuable. Growing more cotton meant an increased demand for slaves. Slaves in the Upper South became incredibly more valuable as commodities because of the demand for them in the Deep South. They were sold off in droves. This created a Second Middle Passage, the second largest forced migration in American history.

To feed ‘King Cotton’ more than a million African Americans were carried off into the Deep South. That’s two and half times the number that were brought to the United from Africa.”

Stephen F. Austin after the death of his father Moses Austin would venture into one of the most expansive land grant adventures in American history. He would seek to move hundreds of Anglo families into Northern Mexico. As an empressario – a land agent or land contractor in Mexico – Austin successfully led over 30,000 Anglo American immigrants between 1821 and 1836 to Northern Mexico.

Among the new immigrants was William S. Peters. Along with his sons, they enticed others to migrate to what would be come to be known as “The Peters Colony.”  The first contract for the Peters was signed on Aug. 31, 1841. The company was to bring in 600 heads of households in a three-year period. Every Anglo man with a family was given 640 acres while a single Anglo man was given 340 acres.

The Peters Colony would grow to include most of Dallas County and parts of Johnson and Ellis Counties and half of Collin and Grayson Counties, half of Tarrant and Cooke County and most of Denton County and part of Johnson County.

It would be in many of these counties that cotton would become a major economic stable and enslaved Africans the major producers of the crop, but not the benefactors of prosperity as Austin asserted in his quote.

Austin had faith in the future of Texas cotton, and he did much to stimulate production and established the cotton industry in a firm footing. His confidence that cotton would insure and secure the prosperity of his colony was so strong that, before the settlements were securely established, he informed his colonists he would accept notes for their land payment in cotton, according to Raymond E. White, in Cotton Ginning in Texas to 1861.

With the coming of the Civil War in April 1861, “The Great Cotton Debate” began. Was the war over reuniting the Union or slavery? No matter how it started, after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, it became a war for the freedom of enslaved African people and the question of what to do with the cotton industry. When the War Department issued General Order 143 in May 1863, creating the United States Colored Troops, over 180,000 formerly enslaved Africans answered the call. Soldiers who had once picked cotton, now carried guns to fight for their freedom.

After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation on Jan. 1, 1863, why the two-and-a-half-year delay in Texas? Cotton.

Texas had become a major cotton producing state. The need to make good on their last harvest played a major role in the delay along with the absence of Union soldiers to enforce the order. Gen. Gordon Granger and the U.S. Colored Troops took steps to read General Order No. 3 in Texas June 19. 1865, to enforce and spread the news of the Emancipation Proclamation.

But what of cotton? Now is the time to reconcile history with opportunity. Now is the time for the descendants of African American Cotton Pickers to reap the prosperity that the descendants of Austin and Anglo Texas immigrants have enjoyed and will enjoy in the future. African American Texans can now reap the benefits from the “Cotton Empire” that was built on the backs of their ancestors. That’s the cotton pickin’ truth!

Juneteenth, glory hallelujah!




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