Since press time, Governor Ralph Northam has proposed legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. If it passes, all state employees would get the day off.
With additional reporting by Erin O’Hare
Every July 4, people across the country don their red, white, and blue; pull out their grills; and watch fireworks with family and friends, in celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But there is another independence day that’s often overlooked: Juneteenth.
Also known as Freedom Day or Jubilee Day, Juneteenth commemorates the day—June 19, 1865—that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved people there that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them, and the Civil War was over. Though President Abraham Lincoln signed the document two and a half years earlier, slave owners had to free their slaves themselves, and some did not until Union troops forced them to. Union troops in Texas, the most remote slave state, were not strong enough to enforce the order until Granger’s arrival—marking an effective end to slavery in the United States.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Charlottesville’s first known public Juneteenth celebration, which was held in a recreation center on Ninth Street, and hosted by Tamyra Turner, a professor at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and Maxine Holland.
PVCC hosted Juneteenth celebrations for 15 years, but in 2016, in an effort to boost waning attendance, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center took over, and brought the events to a more central location in town.
Bringing the holiday to downtown Charlottesville “has really revitalized it,” with attendance in the hundreds year after year, says the school’s Executive Director Andrea Douglas.
For the past few years, the JSAAHC’s Juneteenth party has included a ceremony honoring black community elders, music and dance from black artists, and educational programming. Douglas hoped to have a parade this year as well. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there won’t be “the kinds of events that we have had in the past,” says Douglas, who refused to “waste this anniversary.”
Friday evening, in lieu of its in-person celebrations, the JSAAHC will host an online lecture centered around the Emancipation Proclamation. Holland, with assistance from C.R. Gibbs, Richelle Claiborne, and Ti Ames, will explore the document and the history of Juneteenth, as well as its various components and deeper meaning.
“We had always wanted to focus on the Emancipation Proclamation, because [it] is such an important document,” says Douglas. “In some ways, we think about it as Lincoln’s document, but it was a document that was worked on, and informed, by the ideas of black people—Frederick Douglass in particular.”
And in light of the ongoing protests demanding an end to police brutality and justice for the murders of black people across the country, Douglas says there will be opportunity to discuss “the nuances of what it means to be free,” including the concept of freedom for black people in America today, and how, in many ways, they are still fighting for it.
Historian Hari Jones, former assistant director and curator at the African American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum, will also give a video presentation that dives into the history of Juneteenth and how the Lost Cause myth has impacted how it’s celebrated today.
Though Juneteenth at the JSAAHC will look a bit different this year, the spirit remains the same. And Douglas and others will continue to advocate for Juneteenth to become a national holiday.
Douglas wonders why, as a country, we celebrate July 4, one of the first big moments in American history, but we skip over Juneteenth, the “next main event.” It’s “the very thing that suggests that America made a huge shift…the shift that says that the confederacy, the secession, the papers of secession, those states that seceded, now lost the war,” she says.
While Charlottesville has taken steps towards acknowledging its troubled past by creating Liberation and Freedom Day, the U.S. cannot “fully engage in the truth of our history” until it officially recognizes Juneteenth, she adds. “It should be equally a national holiday as July 4—because it’s the same thing. It’s just how you want to see it.”