Joined by one of Virginia’s most famous musical sons, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that he would begin the process of making Juneteenth a holiday in the commonwealth.
Northam said he would introduce a bill making the day a state holiday, and declared that starting Friday, it would be a paid holiday for executive-branch state workers.
Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams joined Northam as the governor said, “We’re changing what we celebrate in the commonwealth.”
“The history that we teach now is insufficient and inadequate,” Northam said. “We must remember that Black history is American history.”
Virginia has issued a written proclamation on the holiday in the past. “That’s nice,” Northam said, “but we need to do more.”
“We celebrate the Fourth of July, but that freedom was not for everyone,” Northam said.
Juneteenth “finally shut the door on enslavement,” the governor said, and making it a holiday “says to Black communities, ‘This is not just your history; it is everyone’s.'”
Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally arrived at Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued it. “Finally, enslaved Black people there heard the news that they were free,” Northam said.
Northam acknowledged that the celebration was symbolic. “But symbols do matter,” he said. “If they didn’t, people wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep Confederate flags and statues up. Symbols show what we value.”
Virginia would be the second state to make Juneteenth a state holiday, after Texas.
Earlier this year, Northam signed a bill eliminating the state holiday honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, replacing it with Election Day as a holiday.
‘A very special moment’
“This is a very special moment,” Williams said. “This is a big display of progress.”
“When you look at the night sky,” he said, “Those stars are our African ancestors dancing. They’re dancing in celebration because their lives are finally being acknowledged.”
The Grammy-winning musician added, “Black lives matter in the eyes of the commonwealth. I can’t say that it always has. But, finally, we recognize that Black lives absolutely matter.”
“I’ve done my ‘Finding your Roots’ episode,” Williams said, referring to the PBS series hosted by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., “and yes, all my ancestors were enslaved.”
“This is not the end of something; it’s the beginning of something bigger,” he said.
“Here is our day. And if you love us, it’ll be your day, too.”
Williams also called for Virginia-based corporations to “lead the rest of the country” by giving workers a paid day off.
He added that he was working on a project to support graduates of historically black colleges and universities, saying the day was “as much about a new generation as our African ancestors in the sky.”
Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said, “Considering what we have seen in the past weeks in Virginia, it is more than appropriate” to celebrate Juneteenth officially.
“There is no doubt Virginia is at a crossroads, and the future is in our hands,” she said, calling on Virginians of every race to reflect on the day’s meaning.
Virginia is the place the first enslaved people landed in what became the U.S. in 1619. Since then, when “representative democracy and enslaved people arrived in Virginia within a month of each other, we have said one thing, but we’ve done another,” Northam said.
The governor called the recent protests and violence in Richmond “troubling,” and said he would urge a review of use-of-force protocols among police.
He added of protesters, “It is important to hear these voices and listen to what they’re saying.”
Alluding to the blackface scandal that rocked his administration last year, Northam said he had “listened personally to many stakeholders in the past few weeks and the past year, and I hear you.”
No Phase Three
Northam began the news conference with his usual COVID-19 update.
Though he said, “Our numbers continue to look favorable,” none of Virginia will enter Phase 3 of the lifting of safety restrictions this week.
“I want to see how the numbers look,” Northam said, especially since there have been flare-ups around the U.S.
He said numbers of cases and hospitalizations are trending down, including a 7.4% positive-test rate statewide, a new low.
Northam also said the Virginia Department of Health would soon be able to release more detailed, ethnicity-based demographic numbers regarding COVID-19 cases, including Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
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