The enslavement of African Americans was the curse of early American life, and Texas was no exception. The Mexican government was opposed to slavery, but even so, there were 5000 slaves in Texas by the time of the Texas Revolution in 1836. By the time of annexation a decade later, there were 30,000; by 1860, the census found 182,566 slaves -- over 30% of the total population of the state.
Most slaves came to Texas with their owners, and the vast majority lived on large cotton plantations in East Texas. The life of a Texas slave differed little from other places in the South. Most slaves had the basics -- food, clothing, and a crude log cabin for shelter -- but they were kept poor and worked hard. Most were field hands who worked from sunup to sundown. And, while Texas law prohibited an owner from killing or maiming a slave, whippings were considered acceptable and were a common form of punishment. Historians estimate that at least 70% of the slaves received whippings at some point in their lives.
Slaves were extremely valuable assets to their owners. During the late 1850s, a young male field hand cost about $800, while a skilled blacksmith would go for over $2000 -- the equivalent today of $16,000 to $40,000. By contrast, prime cotton growing land sold for six dollars an acre. The forced labor of the slaves made plantation farming very profitable for the slaveholders. By the time of the Civil War, slaveholders controlled most of the wealth in Texas and dominated politics at all levels. They were pushing slavery westward into Central Texas at the time that the war halted the growth of the slave system.
The slave system in Texas, as elsewhere, was held in place by brute force. Some slaves managed to run away to Mexico, but most recognized that 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 simply no way out of slavery for themselves or for their children. In many important areas of life, they were robbed of their basic human rights. They could not plan for the future or even decide for themselves what to do in the course of a day.
In spite of their oppression, the slaves did not behave like a defeated people. Instead, they tried to make the best of their lives and to carve out what independence they could. Most slaves were allowed to be on their own in the evenings and during time off on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. They took full advantage of their time -- to enjoy their families and try to keep them together; to build a remarkable religious community; and to create a rich and influential cultural heritage, especially in the area of music.
When the Civil War came, Texas was not invaded, and the slaves continued to live and work as they had before. They realized that a Union victory would mean their liberation, and they listened for news as best they could and passed the word of any developments. It was not until June 19, 1865, that Union forces occupied Texas and officially freed the slaves. The day would be celebrated in the years to come as "Juneteenth."