Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that he's making Juneteenth — a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. — an official holiday in a state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy.
Juneteenth, which is also called Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, is celebrated annually on June 19. Texas first made it a state holiday in 1980. The holiday would be a paid day off for all state employees. Northam said he thinks Virginia would be only the second state to do so.
“It’s time we elevate this,” Northam said of the June 19 commemoration. “Not just a celebration by and for some Virginians but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”
The Democratic governor is giving every executive branch employee this Friday off as a paid holiday and will work with the legislature later this year to pass a law codifying Juneteenth as a permanent state holiday. The legislation is likely to pass the Democratic-controlled legislature with little trouble.
The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when news finally reached African Americans in Texas that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves living in Confederate states two years earlier. When Union soldiers arrived in Galveston to bring the news that slavery had been abolished, former slaves celebrated.
The announcement came less than two weeks after Northam announcedhe was ordering the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee along Richmond’s prominent Monument Avenue. It is one of the country’s most iconic monuments to the Confederacy. Earlier this year, Northam signed legislation scrapping Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday named after two Confederate generals.
Nearly forced from office last year after a racist yearbook photo surfaced, Northam has won widespread praise among black lawmakers for his actions in Virginia following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for air.
President Donald Trump announced last week that he has rescheduled a campaign rally that was planned in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth. The announcement of the rally had sparked an outcry because Tulsa was the site of one of the worst instances of racial violence in U.S. history in 1921, when hundreds of African Americans were massacred by a white mob that burned black-owned businesses and homes.
Northam was joined Tuesday at his news conference by musician Pharrell Williams, who is from Virginia. Williams said Juneteenth deserves the same level of recognition and celebration as Independence Day.
“Here's our day, and if you love us, it'll be your day too,” Williams said.
In a statement, state House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert echoed the same sentiments.
“July 4th is the birthday of our nation, but Juneteenth is the day where it truly began to fulfill its promise of freedom for all," Gilbert said. “For the first time since enslaved Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619, the chains of bondage were finally cast off."
Joseph Rogers, a 29-year-old activist who has been a regular protester in Richmond during more than two weeks of demonstrations over Floyd's killing, hailed Northam's announcement.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Rogers,