‘We’re changing what we honor in Virginia’: Northam announces legislation to make Juneteenth official state holiday

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RICHMOND, VA. (WJHL) – On June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect two years earlier, freeing millions of enslaved people across the country. More than 200 years later, Juneteenth remains celebrated as the end of slavery in America.

On Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced legislation that would make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. Northam made the announcement accompanied by black community leaders, including musician Pharrell Williams, a Virginia native.

The move follows the repeal of Lee-Jackson Day in April, a state holiday established 100 years ago to honor Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Election Day replaced Lee-Jackson Day in the Commonwealth, Northam recounted, to show Virginians the importance of voting.

“We’re changing what we honor in Virginia,” Northam said, adding, “Some might say changing a state holiday is merely a symbolic action, but symbols do matter.

“If they didn’t, people wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep Confederate flags and statues up.”

Williams took the podium, noting that he wasn’t standing too far from the place where his ancestors arrived to America as enslaved people.

He said recognizing Juneteenth shows that the Commonwealth recognizes the history of black Americans, and should be recognized on the same level as Independence Day.

“July 4, 1776, not everybody was free and celebrating Independence Day,” he said.

Northam said as he listened to Black Lives Matters protestors and to members of the African American History Commission when he came to the conclusion that the history taught in American schools is “inefficient.”

“We must remember that black history is American history,” he said.

Dr. Lauranett Lee, a historian and co-chair of the University of Richmond’s Presidential Commission for University HIstory and Identity, gave a brief history of Juneteenth.

“We need to remember our history and in fact introduce our history to some people because it had not been taught in schools,” Lee said.

“What I do understand in learning about history is that we work best when we work together. This is the time for us to pull together, learn who we have been, who we are and who we can be.”

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