RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) – Gov. Northam announced Tuesday a proposal to make Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, a paid state holiday in Virginia.
The holiday is coming up this Friday, June 19.
Though Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery on paper in 1863, thousands of slaves across the South didn’t know they were free until much later.
In remote Galveston, Texas, slaves didn’t learn about their freedom until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived, more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia, in April of 1865.
“It finally shut the door on enslavement of African American people. And while it did not end racism, black oppression or violence, it is an important symbol,” Northam said.
Northam said he believes Virginia is only the second state in the nation to celebrate Juneteenth, after Texas. He said Virginia has recognized Juneteenth before, but not as an official holiday.
“Every year we celebrate July 4th, Independence Day … but that freedom we celebrate did not include everyone … it’s time we elevate this, not just a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us because that’s how important this event is,” Northam said.
Virginia Beach native and music superstar Pharrell Williams, who took the podium after Northam made the announcement, said he called the governor over the weekend and said Virginia needed to lead the way in celebrating Juneteenth. He likened it to grabbing the bull by the horns, and said Juneteenth deserves the same recognition as the Fourth of July.
“What I said to [Northam] is yes, we can do better,” Williams said.
“A paid holiday, it’s not the end of it, it’s just the beginning of it,” Williams said. “Black lives matter in the eyes of the commonwealth. They didn’t always, but they do now.”
He spoke about how the first enslaved Africans in America arrived more than 400 years ago in Hampton, near his hometown. He says he learned all his ancestors were enslaved, by working with historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“When you look at the vastness of the night sky, and you see those stars moving up there, know that those stars are our African ancestors dancing. They’re dancing in celebration because their lives are finally being acknowledged,” said Williams.
“This year, Juneteenth will look like no Juneteenth before. People of all ages and races, our advocates and allies as well, will together in solidarity for black people like never before … It’s already happening in the streets,” Williams said of protesters fighting for racial justice. “And we love you for that. I’m grateful for those that are standing with us. By the way those are Americans in the streets, not just people who look like me, those are Americans, of all types.”
Williams is calling on corporations that call Virginia home to lead the rest of the country and give employees a paid day off. Northam’s proposal only grants a paid day off for state government employees.
“Setting a new standard in leading how states observe Juneteenth is important. Because it implies there will others to follow, and there will be others to follow. Our women haven’t had their day yet, so many demographics in our country that haven’t had their day yet, but their days are coming.”
With that, he also announced Tuesday he is working on a project to help highlight the bright minds at the country’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). “The strong leaders coming out of those schools are what the world needs right now, especially right now.”
The move to celebrate Juneteenth comes just months after Virginia legislators voted to end Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday. The longtime state holiday in Virginia honored Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and typically fell on the Friday ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It also comes after Northam said the state will remove the Richmond statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
“After years of work by many people, there is momentum and will to truly change our systems to make them more equitable to African American people,” said Sen. Mamie Locke. “A state holiday commemorating the day black people learned they were free helps ensure that all Virginians learn about, and value, how significant that event was in the history of this country.”
The Hampton NAACP also released a statement on the governor’s announcement Tuesday:
“As president of the Hampton Branch NAACP, I am extremely pleased that our Governor has seen it appropriate and fitting to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We thank him for commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people, and I personally urge leaders in every locality, including Hampton, to follow suit in such an important recognition. “– Hampton NAACP President Gaylene Kanoyton
Congresswoman Elaine Luria also issued a statement.
“I am encouraged to hear that Virginia Beach will appoint Patrick Duhaney as City Manager. I applaud the decision to prioritize experience and diversity in this appointment. As an Army veteran and the previous City Manager for Cincinnati, I am confident that Patrick will lead with integrity and professionalism. I look forward to working with Patrick as he begins this important mission of implementing positive reforms within the Virginia Beach community.”– Congresswoman Elaine Luria
Also at Tuesday’s press conference
No Phase 3 This Week
Gov. Northam says Virginia won’t move into phase 3 this week, but he’ll have more information on phase 3 on Thursday.
Northam also made several economic announcements Tuesday, including a big one impacting the Hampton Roads region. S23 Holdings, LLC and its affiliates are going to invest more than $64 million to bring a corporate and industrial campus for ship repair and manufacturing to Newport News. Full details at this link.
The governor and First Lady Pam Northam have created a special program to assist visual artists impacted by COVID-19. The Virginia Artist Relief Fellowship Program will select 40 eligible visual artists in the state to each receive a $5,000 grant.
This article will be updated.
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