Today, I will be re-sharing a Facebook post that was originally written for us in honor of Black History Month by Sherri Price Bruen about her second great-grandfather Henry “Harry” Bruin. I wanted to share it again in honor of Juneteenth and to celebrate it *finally* becoming a federal holiday. There is so much more history here than I could every write appropriately in such a short space but I wanted to give you a brief overview of what was happening and when so that you can place Henry “Harry” Bruin in the timeline a bit better.
If you’re unaware of what Juneteenth is about, let me give you a brief overview. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that called on the Confederate states to rejoin the Union within 100 days and declared that if they didn’t, on January 1, 1863, all enslaved people living in the states that were still engaged in rebellion against the Union “…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” As wonderful as that sounds, Lincoln’s proclamation failed to free the nearly 4 million men, women and children that were held in slavery. How? It’s complicated and far too long to explain here but it boils down to Lincoln’s political policies at the time and his primary goal of keeping the Union together. He was deeply concerned that the four border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware remain in the Union. The proclamation therefore did not apply to the enslaved people in those four border states so that the states wouldn’t join the Confederacy. It was a concern that if they did, it would leave Washington D.C. vulnerable to being surrounded by Confederate forces easily from all sides.
Fast forward to 2 years later, on June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. Texas hadn’t been on the real forefront of many battles and federal forces didn’t have a strong foothold there until June 1865 when General Gordon Granger arrived and read General Order No. 3:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Many of the 250,000 enslaved people rightfully ignored the “work for wages” statement and left immediately for the north or to neighboring states to search for separated family members. While the 13th Amendment that formally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude passed the House vote on January 13, 1865, it was not ratified until December 6, 1865. Lincoln would never see the enslaved people of Texas freed in June nor the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December as he was assassinated on April 14, 1865. This is why June 19th is celebrated as a day of independence.
With that… please enjoy Sherri’s post about her second great-grandfather.
Written by Jill Moore for the Washingtonville Cemetery.
Harry Bruin was born in Port Gibson, MS, near Bruinsburg, and appears to have spent most of his enslaved life in Louisiana. His first attempt to escape slavery resulted in recapture and a severe whipping that left permanent welts on his back. Freedom came during the war of rebellion when Harry took advantage of the opportunity to board the USS Essex gunboat as contraband while it was docked at Springfield Landing for supplies. After the Siege of Port Hudson, Harry enlisted in the Navy on July 14, 1863. Assigned to the USS Richmond, which was headed to the New York Naval Yard for repairs, he finally left behind his life of enslavement. Transferred to the USS North Carolina, a receiving ship, Harry completed his year of service in 1864.
Soon thereafter, Harry found his way to Blooming Grove, NY where he would eventually marry a local woman, Amelia Freeman, and father eight children. It has been said that he had a fine singing voice and deeply moved church congregants with his rendition of “Was I Born to be a Slave?”
While Harry lived out the rest of his life a free man, he suffered severely from Rheumatoid Arthritis contracted during the Civil War. It eventually incapacitated him and caused a stroke that ended his life on 3 Jan 1889. He is buried in the Washingtonville Cemetery. Harry’s headstone was donated by the Isaac Nicoll post of the Grand Army of the Republic. (The surname was misspelled.)
You can visit Harry’s grave virtually by clicking this link.