By Raumesh Akbari
Special to The Enterprise
On June 19 of 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved people in America, Union General Gordon Granger and 1,800 soldiers traveled to Texas to enforce General Orders, No. 3, which said: “All slaves are free.”
The anniversary of this event is now celebrated as Juneteenth — a combination of words from the date June nineteenth.
Still, it wasn’t until December of 1865 that three-fourths of the states ratified the 13th Amendment to officially end slavery in America, but even then, there was a catch — slavery could still be used as a punishment for crime.
And in 1870, when Tennessee lawmakers revised our state constitution following the Civil War, they banned slavery in our governing document as well, but they also included language to allow enslavement as a punishment for crime.
With this exception, Tennessee and other southern state legislatures passed new laws, known as the “Black Codes.” These laws explicitly targeted Black people and subjected them to prison for new “offenses,” such as loitering, vagrancy defined as being out of a job, breaking curfew, and having weapons.
And for the first time in U.S. history, many state penal systems held more Black prisoners than white — all of whom could be punished with enslavement.
So, after the Civil War, the horrific practice of slavery continued but under a different name, “convict leasing.”
This system allowed states like Tennessee to lease prisoners to private companies such as plantations, railways and mines. While the states and companies profited, prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, dangerous and sometimes deadly work conditions.
The system grew for decades, and, in some states, continued through World War II — more than 80 years after slavery was abolished.
There are few examples that better illustrate how the words in our governing documents matter.
Over-policing in African-American communities was borne out of the slavery exception and the consequences of this 150-year-old policy still haunts our families today.
For the last four years, I have worked to remove the slavery exception from our state constitution once and for all. And this year, the Tennessee General Assembly approved my resolution making this constitutional amendment possible.
This November, every voter in Tennessee can help us move a step closer toward reconciling the consequences of the slavery exception by voting “YES” on Amendment 3. Amendment 3, if approved by voters, would finally abolish slavery, in all forms, forever in the state of Tennessee.
We cannot erase the sins of our past, but we can atone and move forward together.
This Juneteenth, let us fulfill the promise of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and commit ourselves to voting “YES” on Amendment 3.
Editor’s note: This opinion piece recently appeared as a Guest Column in “The Commercial Appeal.”