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Virginia likely to become the 2nd state marking Juneteenth as a state holiday

 Photo: Yinan Chen / CC0 1.0
Photo: Yinan Chen / CC0 1.0 (WHSV)
Published: Jun. 16, 2020 at 4:04 PM EDT
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On Tuesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam officially introduced legislation to commemorate Juneteenth as a permanent paid state holiday in Virginia.

Juneteenth is the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, the last of the former Confederate states to abolish slavery, finally heard that the Civil War had ended, and learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had made them free nearly two years earlier.

"Black history is American history," Northam stated, saying it's time to elevate the celebration of Juneteenth and commemorate the day as a key part of America's history each year in Virginia.

While we mark the 4th of July every year, celebrating it intensely across the U.S., Northam said it's important to remember that the freedom being celebrated on that day did not include everyone. And we have "not elevated a different declaration of freedom," the governor said.

“Since 1619, when representative democracy and enslaved African people arrived in Virginia within a month of each other, we have said one thing, but done another,” said Governor Northam. “It’s time we elevate Juneteenth not just as a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and commemorated by all of us. It mattered then because it marked the end of slavery in this country, and it matters now because it says to Black communities, this is not just your history—this is everyone’s shared history, and we will celebrate it together. This is a step toward the Commonwealth we want to be as we go forward.”

We have struggled to live up to our own ideals in America since 1619, Northam said. While Virginia has acknowledged Juneteenth with an annual written proclamation, he said more needs to be done.

"It finally shut the door on enslavement," Northam said.

While he acknowledged it did not end racism, black oppression, or violence, he said it's an important symbol to encourage people to think about the significance of Juneteenth.

It's "not just your history, but everyone's shared history," the governor said.

So, to acknowledge that history and celebrate it for all of Virginia, Northam is proposing legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday, effectively formalizing the day's observance every June 19.

It would make Virginia just the second state in the country to officially recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees, and he hopes local governments across the commonwealth will follow suit.

Its designation will officially start this Friday as a paid day off for all executive state employees, Northam said.

The governor also highlighted

to end Virginia's celebration of Lee-Jackson Day each year and replace it with marking Election Day as a state holiday.

Remarks from black leaders around Virginia

Following the governor's remarks in his Tuesday press conference, he called leaders from around Virginia to the podium to address the designation of Juneteenth as a state holiday.

Leaders said that the official designation will change what Virginia chooses to honor, just like the move by the General Assembly this year to replace Lee-Jackson Day with Election Day.

It's a symbol, Northam and leaders said, but "symbols matter."

The governor said if symbols didn't matter, people wouldn't fight so hard to keep Confederate flags and statues up.

Marking Juneteenth officially will be "a step forward for the Virginia we want for our children and grandchildren," Northam said.

Dr. Lee said it's essential that Virginia mark Juneteenth, though it may mark a key day in Texas, because at least half a million people were enslaved in Virginia on the eve of Civil War, and everyone needs to remember our country's history or introduce that history to those who may not have been taught it.

Rev. Kelvin Jones said we all can admit that Virginia and America have seen better days, with "the country and the commonwealth divided," describing the legacy of racism in America as a horrific wound that has been tried to be fixed with "an exceeding amount of band-aids" to cover the wound instead of "the salve of mutual understanding and respect."

Rev. Jones called for Virginians to find good in each other to get to the point that everyone recognizes that they are their brother's keeper.

His overall message was that Virginians need to overcome the mindset that people are greater than others, and until that happens, America can not be made great.

"How do we get to the place that we can stop putting Rest In Peace on headstones. . . and can live in peace?" Rev. Jones said.

He called for Virginians to be able to find common ground to survive and move into communities to eliminate racism together, calling for people to trust in God to find healing and learn to live peaceably with each other.

“There are many steps Virginia can take to advance justice and equity, and that includes adding a state holiday to mark an event that was critical in the lives of millions of Black people,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Comments from Pharrell

Governor Northam said he recently spoke with "my friend Pharrell Williams" on his thoughts for unity and healing in Virginia and Pharrell told him that he wanted to join the press conference.

And so Pharrell did, providing comments on Tuesday about Virginia's move to honor Juneteenth as a state holiday.

Pharrell called it "a very special moment," saying that from this moment on, when people look to the sky and see the stars, they can know those are African ancestors dancing because they're finally being acknowledged and their lives are finally mattering.

"Black lives matter in the eyes of the commonwealth," Pharrell said. "And that's not political. They're lives, they're human beings."

He described how not far from Richmond is where his ancestors arrived as slaves in America, and how that he today can use his voice is an incredible testament.

He said he told Gov. Northam that Virginia can do better, and he believes what the governor did is an example of what listening looks like.

Pharrell called the decision Virginia's chance to lead by example. to embrace the celebration of freedom that black people deserve, and said it's all about proper recognition and a chance for the government, corporations, and citizens to stand in solidarity.

"This year, Juneteenth will look like no Juneteenth before it," Pharrell said.

He said he's grateful for everyone standing with them, including the Americans in the streets, and said he wants to see Virginia corporations lead the rest of the country in showing black lives matter as well.

"Our country excels at celebrating Independence Day," Pharrell said, and added that he believes Juneteenth deserves the same recognition, since on July 4, not everyone was able to celebrate the same freedom.

He continued, saying that while this marks a day for "everybody's America," there are many others who "haven't had their day yet," and he said "your day is coming."

Pharrell also announced that he's working on a new project with some of the brightest minds from historic black colleges and universities across the country and is proud to be working with the new generation.

He praised the actions of the new generation, which he said is speaking up and staring down systemic racism.

There's "only one direction now," Pharrell said, and that's "forward into the future."

"God is the greatest," he concluded.

Comments from others on the designation

"History is a story to be told and we need to tell that story with truth," Northam said, "because black history is American history."

With that, he called on more black leaders from around the state to provide their comments on the proposal to designate Juneteenth a state holiday.

House of Delegates Majority Leader Charniele Herring, the first black woman House leader in Virginia history, thanked Gov. Northam and said viewing African-American history through the lens of Jim Crow and segregation shows that the legacies of those systems still exist in incarceration, policing, and Virginia courts.

She too called the current time a crossroads and said it's "in our hands" to address racism now.

She encouraged every Virginian to treat Juneteenth as a time for reflection and action.

Northam followed that up, taking questions from reporters, by saying "there's still so much to do" because the wrong history has been told for hundreds of years.

Continuing the metaphor of the crossroads, Northam said the commonwealth can go way and continue divisiveness or go the other way and focus on unity and healing, which he said is the only way to survive as a society, commonwealth, and country.

The new generation

Asked for more comment on his statements about the work of the new generations, Pharrell said he is incredibly proud that young people are "grabbing the bull by the horns" and said Millennials and Gen Z'ers will be the ones who will "figure this out."

Pharrell said it's not only his moral and spiritual obligation, but genetic obligation to aid them in that.

It's not "the ending of something," he said, but "the beginning of something much bigger and greater."

Response from Republicans

House of Delegates Minority Leader Todd Gilbert issued the following statement:

"I am proud to add my support to proposed legislation marking June 19th, Juneteenth, as an official state holiday. July 4th is the birthday of our nation, but Juneteenth is the day where it truly began to fulfill its promise of freedom for all. For the first time since enslaved Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619, the chains of bondage were finally cast off. The Republican Party was founded with the express goal of ending slavery, and it still celebrates the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to this day. As the greatest part of that legacy, Juneteenth is the day that the God-given gift of liberty for all Americans was finally proclaimed throughout the land, and it is deserving of its own special recognition and observance.”

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