As more black history is at the forefront of national conversation, Williamsburg is having a new Juneteenth Celebration to commemorate the freeing of slaves.
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally-recognized commemoration of the official end of slavery in the United States, according to James Madison’s Montpelier. The celebration marks the last day that enslaved people learned of their freedom in 1865 in Texas.
While the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect more than two years prior to that date, Texas still maintained approximately 250,000 slaves until Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued an order stating specifically that all of the slaves in Texas were free, according to the Public Broadcasting Service.
Since then the day has become recognized as an official holiday in 41 states, including Virginia.
Locally, the new grassroots organization Williamsburg Action is planning a new event to commemorate the day.
“We want to honor that memory,” said LaShay Freeman, chairwoman of Williamsburg Action. “Because we know black lives matter, but the ones whose blood and bones we’re walking on, they matter, too.”
Williamsburg Action will host an event Friday to spread education and celebrate the day from noon to 9 p.m. on the lawns of The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. The event will feature programs from Colonial Williamsburg, talks from local leaders and a virtual speech from Jane Elliot, an internationally-known anti-racism activist.
The day will also feature a Unity Walk, where guests will walk together through Williamsburg and past the Historic Baptist Church.
Freeman said the day will help to remind people in this pivotal moment of the important history behind the day but also the ways in which black Americans are still oppressed.
“This entire economy is built on our [African Americans] backs,” she said. “So to not talk about a piece of history means there will always be a misunderstanding about the fight for equality…you have to talk about the time when we were freed to understand how badly it feels in 2020 to know we are still not free.”
One of the important aspects of the event is the recognition of the dream of people who have celebrated Juneteenth before. Freeman said Williamsburg Action wants people to remember those who had a vision of freedom throughout centuries of oppression.
The event is be free and open to the public and is designed to promote public health and safety. Freeman said tables will be spaced apart and guests are encouraged to bring their own chairs and masks.
This is the first Juneteenth event hosted by Williamsburg Action, which started only last month, but Freeman said she hopes it starts a new tradition in the local area.
“That’s why Williamsburg Action is a great group, it represents the diversity of the country but also represents the change that needs to happen so Juneteenth celebrations can happen,” she said. “One day we will be able to say ‘we are free’ but we can’t say that until we say, ‘we are equal, black lives matter.’”
The College of William & Mary was supposed to host it’s first ever Juneteenth celebration with the NAACP chapter and the city of Williamsburg but the event is postponed until next year, Suzanne Clavet, spokeswoman for the college, wrote in an email.
“The decision was made to postpone for two primary reasons: One, for the first year of the event, organizers did not want to place participants or performers in the position of choosing between attendance and an uncertain health situation,” she wrote. “ Two, they also wanted to be certain the first Juneteenth event in this community is a meaningful and significant event.”
Clavet added William & Mary will recognize Juneteenth on their social media channels.
“We were participating with the W&M Juneteenth Celebration, but due to COVID we decided to postpone until next year when hopefully it is behind us,” Brian Smalls, president of the York-James City- Williamsburg branch of the NAACP, wrote in an email. “The Williamsburg Action Group, a new social justice organization born out of the George Floyd situation, is planning to do a Juneteenth event and I may be speaking.”
WYDaily multimedia reporter Julia Marsigliano contributed to this story.
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