Northam declares Juneteenth a state holiday
Governor pushes back release of Phase Three reopening details till Thursday
Joined by superstar musician Pharrell Williams and many black elected officials, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Juneteenth — marking June 19, 1865, when the last group of enslaved Americans were told they were free — will be an annual state holiday in Virginia starting this Friday, June 19.
Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor said he will provide details on entering Phase Three of the reopening plan during Thursday’s news conference and that the state will remain in Phase Two at least another week.
With Northam’s announcement, Virginia becomes only the second state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday, providing all state employees a paid day off. Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980; it was in Galveston, Texas, where a group of enslaved people were the last to find out that they were liberated, following the end of the Civil War and the enactment of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In recent years, activists have led efforts to familiarize the country with the holiday, which is primarily observed in community celebrations, and to make the holiday federally recognized.
Northam acknowledged at the news conference Tuesday that the holiday was a symbolic gesture, adding that “these conversations must keep going,” and that Juneteenth’s official recognition is only one piece of Virginia’s path to full equality for people of all races and ethnicities.
“It’s time for an end to racial violence and systemic injustice. For black people, Latino people, Asian people, Native American people and people with disabilities, my goal — our goal — is equity for all Virginians,” he said. On July 4, Northam added, “that freedom we celebrate did not include everyone.”
Williams, a Virginia Beach native who has promoted recognition of Juneteenth, said that recognition of the day honors black Virginians and their African ancestors, which has been “overlooked for so long. This is our chance in Virginia to lead by example.”
“My ancestors arrived on ships,” he added. “Their lives matter. Their descendants’ lives matter. This year, Juneteenth will look like no other Juneteenth before it. It’s already happening in the streets, and we love you for that. Those are Americans in the street, not just those that look like me.”
Williams also encouraged corporations to follow the state’s lead and give their employees Juneteenth off as a paid holiday.
“There is no turning back,” he said. “With love, with humility, with respect, there is no turning back.”
State Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, echoed Williams’ words, noting that new laws and policy changes will come soon, as the General Assembly plans to address police reform at its August special session. “We are done with ‘slow and inconsistent.'”
On a week when unrest continued in Richmond’s streets, Northam said that he was disturbed by videos posted on social media, many of which showed Richmond police, who were joined by Virginia State Police on recent nights, deploying tear gas and pepper spray at protesters gathered outside the police headquarters. One protester was charged Sunday night with assaulting a police officer and inciting a riot, although some witnesses dispute the statement of Richmond Police Chief William Smith, who said that protesters threw rocks and other items at authorities.
“I am committed to addressing use of force protocols,” Northam said, adding that he is continuing to review videos and to have conversations with the police and state troopers.