Juneteenth and the Filipino
The bloody and bitter American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 over slavery, the slave-holding southern Confederate states versus the abolitionist northern Union states.
On June 19, 1865, two months after the Confederate General Robert Lee surrendered to the Union General Ulysses Grant, Gordon Grager, a Union general assigned to supervise the defeated Texas, issued a General Order declaring that all slaves were free, in accordance with an earlier Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln. Galveston was the first place where the new freedom was celebrated and it spread among African-American communities, eventually to be called Juneteenth (June Nineteenth) but it was a holiday that remained obscure among non-blacks.
I wasn’t surprised, the holiday’s obscurity a reflection of how African-American struggles for freedom continued long after June 19, 1865, against systemic racism. Many of the southern states turned to their own version of South Africa’s apartheid, with segregated (blacks only/whites only) schools, theaters, even bus seats and water fountains. That was the milder part, with rampant violence against blacks, including entire communities. Probably the worst was the Tulsa Massacre from May 31 to June 1, 1921, when whites turned on a flourishing black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing some 300 people and destroying 1,200 homes.
Why should we care in the Philippines?
Because we suffered, too, from white American racism, most severely during the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1902, waged as we resisted America’s colonial occupation of the Philippines.
As Howard Zinn notes in his “A People’s History of the United States,” the Philippine-American war happened during “a time of intense racism in the United States. In the years between 1889 and 1903, on the average, every week, two Negroes were lynched by mobs — hanged, burned, mutilated.”
American soldiers shipped to the Philippines called Filipinos “niggers,” the same term used for African-Americans. “Niggers” made it easier for American soldiers to wipe out entire towns.
Zinn quotes from an American captain’s letter about a less known massacre: “Caloocan was supposed to contain 17,000 inhabitants. The Twentieth Kansas swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native.” A volunteer from the state of Washington wrote: “Our fighting blood was up, and we all wanted to kill ‘niggers.’ .. . This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting all to pieces.”
Among the American soldiers were four black regiments; yes, there was segregation too in the Army. The black soldiers could relate to Filipinos, and were angered by the brutality of the American troops. Zinn mentions how Filipino revolutionary forces understood what was going on, producing posters addressed to “The Colored American Soldier,” “reminding them of lynchings back home, asking them not to serve the white imperialist against other colored people.”
Black soldiers deserted, including some who joined the Filipino troops. David Fagan was the most famous, becoming an officer in the Filipino army and serving for two years. Accounts vary on his fate—one version is that he was caught and executed by the Americans and the other is that he simply blended into the population, staying on after the war.
After the Americans took over the Philippines, Filipinos began to migrate to the States, many as manual laborers in farms and facing the same discrimination as blacks did.
Salvador Roldan in 1931 married Marjorie Rogers, a British white woman, despite an anti-miscegenation law prohibiting inter-racial marriages. Roldan argued, and was upheld by the California Supreme Court, that he was not “negro,” “mullato,” or “Mongolian” — the “races” named by California’s law. The California legislature quickly passed a law barring “Malays” from marrying whites.
Anti-miscegenation laws remained in many states until the US Supreme Court struck them down in 1967, amid the civil rights movement.
More than 50 years later, amid a raging pandemic, African-American George Floyd was killed after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nine and a half minutes even as Floyd pleaded, 20 times, “I can’t breathe.”
A Black Lives Matter movement spread throughout the country and Juneteenth of 2020 came into public focus, commemorated with a new militant tone. This year, just a few days before Juneteenth, the day was declared a federal holiday.
Juneteenth is relevant to us, too, in the Philippines, a reminder to educate ourselves about racism, slavery, the Philippine-American War and the atrocities around the US military bases. It is a time as well to work on the racism that we Filipinos harbor as well, against people of a different color, whether African-Americans or our fellow Filipinos.
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