Juneteenth and Beyond: the Historical Context on Inequality in North Carolina

By: Rachel Ruff

At the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, Juneteenth holds profound significance as we reflect on the prolonged journey to freedom for enslaved individuals. Established as a scholarly collaborative dedicated to studying and remedying inequalities, the Cook Center recognizes Juneteenth not only as a pivotal moment in American history but also as a poignant reminder of the historical context in which inequality exists and continues to persist.

While the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, declared all enslaved people in Confederate states free, the reality of liberation was far more complex and delayed; many individuals did not see the full effect of the proclamation for more than two years past the legal abolishment of slavery. This was especially the case in the southeastern United States, where the psyche of slave owners and entrenched narratives of white supremacy continued to perpetuate the institution of slavery.

In addition to recognizing Juneteenth, the Cook Center reflects on the historical context of the holiday both nationally and locally within the state of North Carolina.

Historical Context of Juneteenth

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce General Order No. 3, finally enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation. This moment came more than two years after the Proclamation was signed and two months after the official Confederacy surrenders of April 9, 1865 (Appomattox) and April 11 (Bennett Place), highlighting the prolonged struggle for freedom experienced by enslaved individuals across the country.

While the Emancipation Proclamation declared freedom for enslaved people in Confederate states, it wasn't until Union troops enforced this decree that freedom became a reality.

The delay in freeing enslaved individuals in North Carolina underscores the deep-rooted resistance to change and the extent to which the South went to perpetuate the narrative of slavery, white supremacy, racism, and prejudice. The recognition of Juneteenth is more than a recognition of freedom; it is an acknowledgment of the persistent efforts to maintain a system of racial oppression even after slavery was abolished.

Impact in North Carolina

North Carolinians were still vastly opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation. According to Harold D. Moser, immediately after the proclamation’s announcement, North Carolinian newspapers, Confederacy personnel, and commentators heavily opposed the purpose and actions of Lincoln. Moser notes that newspaper editors predicted Lincoln's manumission edict would serve to unify the South and bring external aid to the Confederacy. For instance, Alexander Gorman, editor of the Raleigh Spirit of the Age, claimed the proclamation would “strengthen the unity of the South and embitter its hostility to the whole vile Yankee nation.” Moser also highlights John W. Syme's view that it was a “first-rate edict” for rallying the South. This political environment, typical of the South, delayed progress for the formerly enslaved in North Carolina, with substantial advancements coming nearly two years after the proclamation, particularly in Raleigh and Durham (Moser, 1967, 56-57).

In March 1865, the U.S. Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist formerly enslaved people in their transition to freedom. The Bureau's presence in North Carolina, including in the Triangle region, played a crucial role in providing food, housing, education, and legal assistance. Despite its efforts, the Bureau faced significant obstacles, including limited resources and widespread resistance from white populations intent on maintaining racial hierarchies.

Impact in Raleigh

Post-war Raleigh was marked by the establishment of educational institutions for African Americans, often supported by the Bureau and religious organizations. One of the most enduring symbols of this transition is Shaw University, founded on December 1, 1865, in Raleigh by Henry Martin Tupper. As one of the first institutions of higher education for African Americans in the South, the university provided newly freed Black Americans with opportunities for higher education, contributing to the social and intellectual growth of the Black community.

Within ten years of the 1863 Proclamation, North Carolina made large strides to educate the formerly enslaved as more higher institutions of learning opened across the state: Barber-Scotia College (1867), Johnson C. Smith University (1867), St. Augustine’s University (1867), Fayetteville State University (1867), and Bennett College (1873).

Impact in Durham

Following the Civil War, Durham also saw significant changes as the area transitioned from a primarily agricultural economy to one increasingly dominated by tobacco cultivation and industry. The establishment of the North Carolina Railroad in 1854 played a crucial role in this economic shift, turning Durham Station into a commercial hub for tobacco trading. This period saw the rise of the and other local elites who influenced this development.

Students from the Cook Center’s Inequality Studies Minor toured of the former Stagville Plantation, once one of the largest plantations in North Carolina and owned by the Cameron family. The trip also delved into challenges following emancipation, such as sharecropping. The unfair contracts that the newly freed sharecroppers were forced to sign closely mimicked the realities of slavery, continuing the racial economic disparities that persist today.

Many newly freed Black Americans in Durham engaged in sharecropping. This system often resembled "slavery under another name" due to the exploitative contracts and the control landlords maintained over crop sales and labor. Despite these challenges, some Black families began to acquire land, which represented both economic self-sufficiency and political empowerment.

Continued Struggles and Systemic Oppression

The period after the Proclamation and end of the Civil War was also characterized by significant political struggles. The Black Codes and subsequent Jim Crow laws severely restricted the rights and freedoms of Black Americans. These laws enforced racial segregation and disenfranchised Black citizens, leading to a prolonged struggle for civil rights and social justice. Black people faced severe restrictions on their rights, including being barred from testifying in court, receiving harsh penalties for crimes, and being denied the right to vote. To maintain a stable labor force, planters imposed restrictive contracts, low wages, forced apprenticeships, and resorted to physical intimidation and manipulation of the court system.

As these issues persisted,  Black neighborhoods started to form including the historic Hayti district, that would be known as Black Wall Street. This era of coalition-building, resources sharing, and collective empowerment established a better footing for the success of Black people in Durham. The businesses that occupied this community flourished from the 1880s to the 1940s. This bolstering community of Black business provided stability and capital to the formerly enslaved until its destruction through the construction of NC Highway 1- 47. The systematic destruction of Black Wall Street reflects the ways white supremacy continued to destroy the progress of Black people and revert to pre-proclamation racial hierarchies.

Modern Relevance

As we acknowledge Juneteenth, it is crucial to understand the historical context and the enduring impact of slavery on Black communities nationwide. This reflection calls us to contextualize moments in history to our communities to understand the work still needed to achieve true freedom and equality for all.

Researchers at the Cook Center continue to explore disparities in wealth, education, employment, and housing remain significant challenges to the Black community. According to a report by the Cook Center, “Addressing racial wealth inequality will require a major redistributive effort or another major public policy intervention to build Black American wealth…[and]…could take the form of a direct race-specific initiative like a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Juneteenth as a holiday speaks to the spirit of promise and optimism for the world the Freedmen and their posterity entered after Emancipation. That spirit of promise and optimism never has been fulfilled and compels us to recognize the necessity of comprehensive reparations for black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in the United States.”

– William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., Founding Director of the Cook Center, and the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University.


In reflecting on Juneteenth both nationally and within the state of North Carolina, the Cook Center stands resolute in its commitment to dismantling the enduring barriers of inequality.

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