Flanked by recording artist Pharrell Williams and a who's who of African-American leaders from across Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday he will ask the General Assembly to make Juneteenth a state holiday.
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the date in 1865 that word of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation made its way to the final state, Texas. Although President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation ended slavery on paper in 1863, thousands of slaves across the South didn’t know they were free until much later.
Northam said he will give executive branch state employees the day off with pay this year. It was not clear whether he would propose legislation to create the holiday when the legislature meets in special session later this summer or whether he will wait until the next regular session in January. He noted that Virginia would be just the second state to make Juneteenth a holiday and encouraged local governments and businesses to follow his lead.
Northam noted that the country celebrates its independence every July 4, “but that freedom we celebrate did not include everyone.”
“Throughout American history we’ve struggled to live up to our ideals of freedom and justice for all. We’ve said one thing but done another,” he added.
He said that Virginia is among 44 states that annually commemorate Juneteenth with a written proclamation. "That’s nice, but we need to do much more. It’s time we elevate it."
The symbolism of the holiday would be important, he added. “It mattered then because it marked the end of slavery; it matters now because it says to black communities this is not just your history this is everyone’s shared history, and we recognize it together."
Since photos emerged early last year from Northam's medical school yearbook showing students in blackface, the governor has focused on addressing racial equality issues, and he recently extended the work of a commission taking a comprehensive look at how state laws affect African Americans. The recent protests and demonstrations surrounding the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have spurred additional efforts, including Northam's plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
At Northam's request, the General Assembly this year ended Lee/Jackson Day as a state holiday and instead made Election Day a holiday. Lee/Jackson Day commemorated the two Confederate generals.
"We're changing what we honor in Virginia," he said.
Williams, who is from Virginia Beach, said he and Northam spoke over the weekend about additional steps the state could take, including the Juneteenth holiday. He said he is a descendant of slaves.
“My ancestors sacrificed their lives so that I could stand here today and use my voice," Williams said. “This is our chance to lead by example.... This is about proper recognition, it’s about observation, and it’s about celebration.”
He noted that most of the demonstrations since Floyd's death have included a diverse group of people. "Those are Americans in the streets, not just people who look like me, but all types.”
Williams encouraged Virginia businesses to recognize the holiday as well. "Juneteenth deserves the same level of celebration and recognition” as July 4, he said. “If you love us, it will be your day, too.”
Among those on hand in Richmond for the news conference were House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both from Fairfax County. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria and the first African-American House Majority Leader in Virginia history, was among the speakers.
"I encourage every Virginian no matter your race to treat Juneteenth as a time for reflection, conversation and, most importantly, action," Herring said.