The enslavement of African Americans is a stain on early American life, including Texas. There were 5000 slaves in Texas at the time of the Texas Revolution. By the time of annexation a decade later, there were 30,000. The 1860 census shows 182,566 slaves in Texas, which was over 30% of the state’s total population.
Most slaves were brought to Texas by their owners and worked on the large cotton plantations in East Texas. Most slaves were given the basics — food, clothing, and a crude cabin for shelter — but they were poor and worked hard. Most worked in the field from sunup to sundown. Even though Texas law prohibited an owner from harming a slave, whippings were a common form of punishment.
Slaves were valuable assets to their owners. During the late 1850s, a young male field hand cost about $800 and a skilled blacksmith could cost over $2000, today worth $16,000 to $40,000. By contrast, fertile land for growing cotton sold for $6 an acre. The free slave labor made plantation farming very profitable for slaveholders. By the time of the Civil War, slaveholders controlled most of the wealth in Texas and dominated politics at all levels.
Some slaves managed to escape to Mexico, but an unsuccessful escape would mean a severe beating or being sold away from their families. For most slaves, no matter what they did or how hard they worked, there was no way out of slavery for themselves or their children. They were denied basic human rights. They could not make any decisions about their lives.
The slaves tried to make the best of their lives. Most slaves were allowed some free time in the evenings and weekends. They used this time to enjoy their families, to build a religious community, and to create a rich cultural heritage, especially with music.
Texas was not invaded at the start of the Civil War. The slaves continued to live and work as they had before. They knew they would gain freedom if the Union won the war. They followed news of the war and shared word of any developments. On June 19, 1865, Union forces occupied Texas and officially freed the slaves. The day is celebrated as "Juneteenth."
© 2020 Texas State Library and Archives Commission