Virginia’s recognition of Juneteenth a ‘step in the right direction,’ VCU history professor says

The state celebrating the holiday “should signal the beginning of increased efforts to address our nation’s legacy of racial inequality.”

A person speaking at a press conference with other attendees standing beside them.
Musician Pharrell Williams, who advocated in favor of Virginia's recognition of Juneteenth, speaks at a news conference Tuesday. “From this moment on, 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,” he said. “They’re dancing in celebration because their lives are finally being acknowledged.”

Virginia is celebrating Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery, for the first time this year as a holiday for state employees, and Gov. Ralph Northam is issuing legislation to make it an official state holiday for all Virginians.

Michael L. Dickinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is an expert in African American history, colonial and early republic America, comparative slavery and Black Atlantic history.

Michael Dickinson, Ph.D.
Michael Dickinson, Ph.D.

Dickinson, who has given public presentations on the history of Juneteenth, says the holiday’s recognition by Virginia is a step in the right direction and should signal increased efforts to address the nation’s legacy of racial inequality.

What is the historical significance of Juneteenth being observed as a state holiday in Virginia?

Virginia recognizing Juneteenth is a deeply significant development. While far more symbolic than systemic changes, such as greater investment in African American communities to increase equity, adding this holiday is particularly meaningful for our state. As home to the capital of the Confederacy, this state, like many other Southern states, has struggled deeply with the legacy of the Civil War. African American residents have long voiced frustration with the considerable attention paid to Confederate soldiers and virtually no attention given to the end of the Civil War issuing the death blow to the institution of slavery. That is what recognizing Juneteenth helps begin to do.

What is the history of the holiday? How did Juneteenth become the day that was widely recognized as the country's commemoration of the end of slavery?

Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, first learned that they were free. The war had effectively ended months earlier when the Confederacy surrendered, but fighting still continued in pockets of the Deep South as word spread. Free blacks then annually commemorated and celebrated their emancipation since 1865 starting in Galveston and spreading through Texas. In Texas, the day has been honored fairly steadily since and became an official state holiday in 1980. Juneteenth also spread to other states, though such celebrations ebbed and flowed over time. For instance, there was a dramatic increase in Juneteenth celebrations during the civil rights era. More recently, over the past couple of decades, black writers, scholars, historians, entertainers and activists have worked to expand recognition of Juneteenth as a time to remember slavery, celebrate its demise, reflect on racial progress since and evaluate current racial struggles. Today, Juneteenth celebrations can be found in almost every state.

There is a new groundswell of advocacy to designate Juneteenth as an official holiday across the country. Do you hope more states follow in Virginia’s and Texas' footsteps?

I certainly hope this becomes part of a national movement. Commemorations, or lack thereof, send important messages about what we as a society should champion as events and figures to celebrate. It speaks volumes that we often overlook the end of slavery and the hardships captives endured while often memorializing historical figures who wanted to keep them in bondage.

Anything else you would like to add?

While recognizing Juneteenth signals a step in the right direction, we should be careful not to equate these efforts with systemic change. Adding a day on a state calendar is a small step toward a larger process of reconciliation and addressing issues of systemic racial injustice. This is indeed a positive, tangible development, and a noble effort, but it should signal the beginning of increased efforts to address our nation’s legacy of racial inequality, not the end.

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