Twenty-seven years ago, nine co-workers at the Corning plant in Christiansburg gathered for lunch at a nearby restaurant. They used their lunch hour to reflect on the significance of June 19 and what they could do to draw more attention to the date.
That low-key and quite unofficial gathering marks the first time the phrase “Juneteenth” appeared in The Roanoke Times, at least according to our digital archives that date back to 1990.
There was no mention in 1990 or 1991 or 1992. In 1993, there was just that single reference, documented by reporter Robert Freis, now one of our copy desk and night editors.
Nearly thirty years later, Juneteenth is now being recognized as a paid state holiday for the first time, an outcome that those nine Corning workers in 1993 could only imagine—but also did. Today, on Virginia’s first official recognition of Juneteenth as a state holiday, it seems appropriate to go back to that first story to measure how much has changed, and how much hasn’t.
The story explained the origins of “Juneteenth.” June 19, 1865 is when Union troops arrived on Galveston, Texas, more than two months after Appomattox, and Gen. Gordon Granger told the enslaved people there that they were now free. History holds that they were last group of slaves to hear about the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1993, our news story said that “now, more than a century later, this African-American folk holiday remains obscure.” It said that David Moore had only recently heard of the holiday “so he contacted co-workers at Christiansburg’s Corning plant, and they had their own modest celebration.” June 19 that year being a Saturday, the Corning workers gathered instead the day before. Whatever the date, it sounds as if this was less of a celebration and more of a discussion:
“Too often, people don’t equate American history with black history,” said Moore, who last year was appointed the first black member of the Montgomery County School Board.
”We need more education,” added Teresa Calfee. “I have a little boy, and everything he learns about black history is from me telling and explaining it to him or from church.”
Others around the table said that they learned of Juneteenth only through a word-to-mouth network, comparable to a modern underground railroad.
”None of us learned about it in school. Nobody talked about it at home,” said Moore. “There was nothing about Juneteenth in the newspapers.”
Loserah Phillips said some rap songs have more information about black history than school textbooks.
The story noted that Corning’s headquarters in New York was holding a three-day event to celebrate Juneteenth, which seemed a marvel at the time.
Locally, however, the day was undistinguished. Roanoke’s Harrison Museum of African American Culture had no commemorative events.
Moore and his co-workers said they want that to change. They envision Juneteenth as a national day to celebrate African-American history and culture.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s declaration of a paid state holiday puts us much closer to that goal.
History is full of ironies, and the celebration of Juneteenth is no exception. Many white Americans remain oblivious to the date and it’s clear from that 1993 story that even then many black Americans were, as well. Our archives go on to note that in 1994 the Virginia Tech’s Black Cultural Center, along with the Black Student Alliance, “will have the first local Juneteenth observance.” By 1999, the New York Times reported an “upswing” in Juneteenth events around the country, enough to declare the observances “a national phenomenon.” During the 2000s official declarations by state governments spread nationwide. In 2007, the Virginia House of Delegates declared June 19 as “Juneteenth Freedom Day” but stopped short of making the day an official state holiday.
Now for that irony we promised: This isn’t a “new” holiday, it’s a revival of an old one. An online exhibit by the Library of Virginia—called “Remaking Virginia” at virginiamemory.com—looks at how Emancipation Day was widely celebrated by African Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The difference was that people couldn’t agree on which day to celebrate. In Hampton, people celebrated on January 1, 1866—the anniversary of the date that the Emancipation Proclamation became effective—and participants declared that “the first day of January will be set apart until time shall be no more; when this people will be gathered to Abraham’s bosom to join the triumphant throng, in songs of praise to the God that brought them out of bondage forever and ever.” In Richmond, the preferred date for celebration was April 3, to coincide with the anniversary of when Union troops arrived in the city. In other communities—the exhibit specifically mentions Clifton Forge—the date April 9 was chosen to coincide with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. In Loudoun County, people celebrated September 22, the date when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1890, African American leaders in Richmond sought to establish a single date for celebration—and then wound up staging a three-day event from Oct. 15 to 17 as a National Thanksgiving Day for Freedom. The event was big enough that the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad offered discounts on train tickets. The event also came at the tail-end of a brief period of racial reconciliation in Virginia—even Gov. Phil McKinney spoke. More ironies: McKinney had run for governor on a platform of white supremacy.
Large-scale celebrations—on different dates—continued into the 1900s. The Library of Virginia exhibit shows a large parade through Richmond in 1905, but doesn’t give a more specific date. Why did those observances die out? It’s hard to say. Generations die off and some traditions don’t get passed on. It’s also notable that those years also saw the imposition of Jim Crow laws across Virginia and the South, and an uptick in racially-motivated lynchings. It’s easy to imagine that people might not have been inclined to call too much attention to themselves.
In any case, the point is this: Our new Juneteenth holiday is not entirely new. In many ways, it’s a restoration—and expansion—of celebrations that were first held in Virginia in 1866. Those years in between—a long detour to which we’re now applying a course correction.