Juneteenth and Virginia
Justice for Ourselves
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In 2021 President Joe Biden signed legislation establishing June 19 as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery. With its roots in nineteenth-century Texas, Juneteenth has become central to not only commemorating emancipation, but also to celebrating African American culture. June 19 was the date in 1865 when the Union Army arrived in Galveston and announced that the Civil War was over and that enslaved persons were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the proclamation had become official more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, freedmen in Texas adopted June 19 as the date they celebrated freedom from slavery. Juneteenth celebrations continued into the 20th century and in 1980 the Texas state legislature established June 19 as a state holiday.

In the 1990s Juneteenth spread from Texas to other parts of the country, including Virginia. A Juneteenth event at the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Community Museum in 1992 inspired celebrations that spread throughout Virginia by the end of the decade. In a 2007 resolution, the Virginia House of Delegates designated the third Saturday each June as Juneteenth Freedom Day. In 2020 Governor Ralph Northam issued an executive order in establishing Juneteenth as an official state holiday.

The nature of Emancipation Day celebrations have varied depending on the time and place. In Washington, D.C., it's commemorated with a local holiday and community events in mid-April, coinciding with the April 16,1862, date when Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in the nation's capital. In 1963 the United States Congress designated January 1 as Emancipation Proclamation Day. Many observe this date in conjunction with Watch Night, a traditional African American religious gathering that dates back to December 31, 1862, when abolitionists awaited word that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.

Justice for Ourselves: Black Virginians Claim Their Freedom After Slavery, a new work from University of Virginia Press, in association with the Library of Virginia, tells the story of remarkable men and women in the post–Civil War decades who persevered in the face of withering barriers to create a new world for themselves and subsequent generations. How each of them personally experienced the end of their enslavement was an event that shaped them and stayed with them for the rest of their lives. For decades Black Virginians celebrated emancipation and a life free of bondage with parades and community gatherings.

Seeking to establish a "National Thanksgiving Day for Freedom," Richmond African Americans sponsored a three-day celebration in October 1890 complete with prominent speakers, a parade, and fireworks. John Mitchell Jr.'s Richmond Planet reported strong opinions from attendees on the most appropriate date to celebrate emancipation. Jackson Acres, a forty-five-year-old undertaker who grew up in Lunenburg County, recalled, "Although the Proclamation had been issued, I think the work was done April 3, when Richmond fell." William S. Selden, a forty-year-old funeral director, remembered clearly April 9, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, "For the day of the downfall of the Confederacy was the day of the uprising of the Negro." Dr. Robert E. Jones, a thirty-year-old Alabama-born physician, remarked, "it was conceded that when Lee surrendered to Grant the work was accomplished." Underscoring the personal nature of freedom, fifty-year-old grocer William Bell simply declared that he felt freedom on April 3, when United States troops entered Richmond, "because that was the day that I shook hands with the Yankees."

Across the country, modern public and private Juneteenth commemorations range from small church affairs to grand celebrations that include readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, speeches, parades, music, prayer services, and street fairs. Large and small, they serve as public celebrations of a transformed society. The Black Virginians of Justice for Ourselves and the institutions they created led the way in transforming the African American experience at the dawn of emancipation.

—John G. Deal, Marianne E. Julienne, and Brent Tarter, Library of Virginia

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