UConn Historian Earns Pennington Award; Talks Juneteenth as Holiday Approaches

Manisha Sinha talks about the roots of Juneteenth, which became a national holiday in 2021, but which began in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War

Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair of American History, lectures at the Gentry Building. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Manisha Sinha’s history lessons tell the truth about slavery in the United States. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Manisha Sinha is one of the few people in the United States who can recite the story of James W.C. Pennington like it was her own.

A fugitive slave in the 1800s, Pennington became a minister after attending classes at Yale Divinity School and wrote two books, one of which, “A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People,” is considered the first written history of African Americans.

He was a pacifist, Sinha says, and during the 1849 World Peace Conference in Paris, Pennington met a German activist who was so impressed by him and his story, the man returned to the University of Heidelberg in Germany and advocated for Pennington to receive an honorary doctorate - which gave him the designation of being the first African American to receive an honorary degree from a European university.

“When I was working on my book about abolition, I was writing about a lot of these forgotten Black abolitionists, including Pennington,” Sinha says. “On the 625th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg, officials decided to endow a fellowship named after Pennington. They contacted me to do the inaugural lecture because they wanted to find somebody who could actually speak about Pennington.”

As if that wasn’t honor enough in 2011, a decade later, Sinha, the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at UConn, received the 2021 James W.C. Pennington Award and is in Germany now on a month-long fellowship that was postponed last year during the pandemic.

“I was not expecting this award because previous recipients were very senior people well along in their careers,” Sinha, who is the first UConn faculty member to have received the award, says. “The first awardee, Albert Raboteau, was an eminent historian of Black Christianity and slave religions. I didn’t think of myself in his company.”

Between teaching recently – and as the U.S. readies to celebrate Juneteenth for the second time as a federal holiday – Sinha talked with UConn Today about the holiday’s roots, what it was like the day after slavery ended, and whether there’s still slavery in the U.S. today.

How do Black Americans commemorate the end of slavery?

African Americans have this tradition of celebrating emancipation and abolition. Even in the early republic they celebrated the end of the African slave trade, which was abolished in 1808. They would have Emancipation Day parades to celebrate different Northern states’ emancipation dates. In the North they would celebrate British emancipation on Aug. 1. And then, of course, once you had the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery there was always a commemoration of emancipation. African Americans have this tradition of celebrating these days as the end of slavery, as the dawn of Black citizenship. Interestingly, it’s African Americans who invented Memorial Day; I think a lot of Americans don’t know that. It began as Decoration Day, during which freed people would decorate the graves of dead Union soldiers. And then it became Memorial Day, remembering all of America’s fallen veterans. A lot of people who commemorate Memorial Day don’t know that enslaved people invented the holiday, and they did it to honor the Union dead - not the Confederates but just the Union, the people who fought for the end of slavery.

So what’s the origin of Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is another of those holidays that celebrates emancipation, but it is very specific to Texas. Enslaved people in Texas did not know about the Emancipation Proclamation until the Union army got to Texas on June 19, 1865, and the Union General Gordon Granger issued a proclamation stating enslaved people were free. That became Juneteenth, and it’s been celebrated in Texas by African Americans as an emancipation holiday. More recently, it’s become celebrated elsewhere and has turned into a quintessential Black holiday. President Joe Biden made it a national holiday in 2021 because we in the United States don’t have a national holiday that recognizes the end of slavery. I think the reasoning for its expansion across the country was that even though this was a Texas-specific commemoration we must have one national holiday to mark the end of slavery. We have Martin Luther King Jr. Day on which we celebrate the achievements of the civil rights movement, and now we have one national holiday that marks emancipation. As a historian of slavery, I like that because I think it really honors the old Black tradition of celebrating emancipation and I think it also reminds us that we had slavery.

Why is it important to remember the country once had slavery?

It took a huge civil war with over 700,000 Americans dying to get rid of slavery. More Americans died in the Civil War than the First World War, Second World War, Korean War, and Vietnam War combined, and the American population was much smaller than it is today. As a Civil War historian, I think it’s important for us to remember that cataclysmic moment and for all those people who are calling for civil war now to realize that you don’t play with these words. We should be able to resolve our differences without killing each other, otherwise democracies don’t function.

Are there accounts of what it was like when areas of the country were freed?

There are many accounts of the Union army entering Richmond, Virginia, for instance, when it fell or coming to Galveston, Texas. What is remarkable is that enslaved people reacted joyously. That’s how you get Juneteenth. It’s a joyous celebration of the army coming in. The initial reaction when General Granger comes to Texas and issues the proclamation is joy. And that’s enormously significant because a lot of Southern slaveholders in other states in the Confederacy had fled to Texas as the Union army came. They refugeed their slaves there, meaning they willfully made them into refugees. When the general’s proclamation was issued, it, of course, was meant for the enslaved people of Texas but also these slave refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi, even all the way from South Carolina. I think it makes sense to have Juneteenth as a national holiday because its historical significance affected enslaved people from these other states who were at that point in Texas. I’ve known about Juneteenth because I study slavery, but it really didn’t enter the popular consciousness until the last few years. I think it is because African Americans have held onto this ritual of celebrating emancipation, and they fought for its recognition.

Would you argue that in the U.S. today, slavery still exists or that it does not?

It does not exist. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery even though Southerners tried to reinstitute oppressive racial regimes like convict lease labor, sharecropping, debt peonage, and racist terror against Black people. Because of the 13th Amendment, the one thing they couldn’t do was reinstitute slavery. They used other methods of oppression, which some historians say were worse than slavery or slavery by another name, but they could not reinstitute chattel slavery. Black people were not being bought and sold as they were under slavery, which is small comfort I know, but it still makes a difference because African Americans could constitute their own families, their own churches, their own communities. Even those in the worst of circumstances could get an education because of the creation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities during Reconstruction, which were the springboard for the civil rights movement. Of course, it’s not as if Black people stopped struggling; they continued to fight for their rights. But I don’t think we have slavery today. What we do have is what I and many historians call the “long afterlife of slavery.” In the Jim Crow South, there were people who just could not accept the end of slavery, so they came up with another system to subordinate Black people and take away their rights. I think there will always be a minority in the U.S. who will never accept African Americans as equal citizens. We are still struggling with the legacies of racial inequality, the attempt to scapegoat people, the attempt to demonize people, and to generally challenge so many human rights - for women, LGBTQ people, Black people, and immigrants. What’s happening today really does remind me of the late 19th century, which was the height of nativism, social Darwinism, and racism in the United States.