HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — Gov. Ralph Northam and other leaders visited Fort Monroe on Friday as Virginia celebrates Juneteenth.

Juneteenth is now a national holiday after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday. The holiday on June 19 marks the day slaves in Texas learned they were free, about two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia, in April of 1865.

Fort Monroe, in Hampton, was the site where the first enslaved Africans were brought to English North America in 1619.

“Our recognition of Juneteenth signifies that we understand its importance to all Americans—it was on this day in 1865 that our nation took one step closer toward its promise of liberty and justice for all,” said Northam. “While it did not end racism, oppression, or violence, it is an important symbol of hope—and a reminder of the constant struggle for equality. As we continue the work of telling the full and accurate story of our shared history, we must also acknowledge historical moments like this, even as they challenge us to reckon with our past and our present.”

Northam’s visit comes a year after he declared Juneteenth a state holiday in Virginia. Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams was key player in urging Northam to make the move.

Virginia state employees had Friday off because June 19 is on a Saturday this year, and most federal employees will also observe the holiday on Friday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management says.

Juneteenth is also a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York and Washington.

The importance of Friday’s event was not lost on those who attended.

80-year-old Rosetta Green from Suffolk showed up with her daughter at Fort Monroe for the event.

“I never thought I would live to see this day to commemorate June 19,” she said.

Singers from the I.C. Norcom High School Greyhound Trio sang for the crowd of approximately 250 people. 

“I be buried in my grave, and go home to my lord, and be free,” she added. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time, so for me to still be here when it has come to fruition. It really warms my heart, and I just thank the Lord I’m here to witness this.” 

Juneteenth also means a lot to Gerald McLamore from Norfolk, 

“It means a celebration. It means loving, it means caring about each other, Black or white, or any other race. It was about freedom,” McLamore said.  

Dr. Colita Fairfax is the immediate past Chair of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources and addressed the crowd.

“Can you say freedom for me?” she said.

The crowd screamed back, “Freedom.” 

“This is the first time so many of us have been out since the pandemic hit, so it is fitting that we talk about freedom,” Fairfax continued.

In his speech, Governor Northam emphasized the magnitude of Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth matters because it marked the end of slavery in the United States, and it matters because it says to all of us this is not just Black history, this is American history,” Northam said to a round of applause.

Green added this new event is a long time coming.

“Black history has been part of American history, and it has been ignored for so long, and I’m just happy that we finally arrived at this day, and to give it the recognition that it deserves,” Green said.

Northam made several observations that tie in with Juneteenth.

“We took down a confederate statue representing Virginia in the halls of Congress, and we replaced it with civil rights activist Barbara Johns, and that deserves applause,” he said.

Virginia Poet Laureate Dr. Luisa Igloria, who teaches at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, read an original poem entitled “Dear America.” 

“Now that we are told we have the dream, how do we make sure it doesn’t deteriorate into a substandard, or a lapsed edition, or heaven forbid a bootleg manufactured in a third world sweatshop of the dream?” she read.

“It’s about learning that you no longer have to be shackled. It’s learning you can stand up and be a person. You can be a man, a woman, a person of color, and you don’t have to worry about those things that kept you down,” McLamore added.

Cities and organizations across the region will also hold events on Friday and Saturday for Juneteenth. You can read about all of the events and more here.