Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery in the U.S., could soon become a state holiday in Virginia.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that he would introduce legislation to make June 19 a paid holiday for state employees. The governor has ordered that executive branch employees will have the day off Friday in recognition of the day.
Juneteenth, recognized annually on June 19, marks the day in 1865 when formerly enslaved people in Texas were belatedly told of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect in 1863.
“It’s time we elevate this,” Northam said. “It finally shut the door on the enslavement of African American people and while it did not end racism, black oppression or violence, it is an important symbol. By commemorating it, we push people to think about the significance of Juneteenth.”
Virginia Beach native and musical artist Pharrell Williams and top Democrats in the General Assembly joined Northam to back adding Juneteenth to the list of paid state holidays.
“This is a big display of progress and I am grateful for Virginia for leading the way,” Williams said. “From this moment on, when you look at the vastness of the night sky, and you see those stars moving up there, know that those stars are our African ancestors dancing. They are dancing in celebration because their lives are acknowledged.”
Williams encouraged businesses in the state to also observe Juneteenth. Capital One said Tuesday that it will close all of its U.S. offices and branches at 2 p.m. Friday in observation of the holiday.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said at a separate news conference Tuesday that the city would also start observing Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
Virginia has previously marked Juneteenth with a proclamation, but June 19 has not been considered a state holiday. The day has gained increased attention over the past several weeks during protests over police brutality and racial injustice in Virginia and elsewhere.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, called a Juneteenth state holiday “an important step toward affirmation” of African American history in the state.
“There are many steps Virginia can take to advance justice and equity, and that includes adding a state holiday to mark an event that was critical in the lives of millions of Black people,” Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement.
Said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton: “We are done with slow and inconsistent. The time has come for us to begin to move forward with laws and policy changes that makes freedom and liberation a reality in this country. Having Juneteenth recognized for the sacredness that it is for us as African Americans is one huge step forward.”
Virginia has had a fraught history at the intersection of state holidays and race.
It has marked a state holiday for Robert E. Lee’s birthday since 1889. It added Stonewall Jackson to the Lee holiday in the early 1900s.
The first federal holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was observed in January 1986. In the mid-1980s, Virginia began marking the federal holiday to the civil rights martyr on the same day, as Lee-Jackson-King Day.
In 2000, Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican, called for splitting them into separate holidays. The General Assembly voted this year to remove Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday, replacing it on the calendar with Election Day.
Northam’s proposal already has bipartisan support, with House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, backing the to-be-introduced legislation.
“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.”
Gilbert added: “The Republican Party was founded with the express goal of ending slavery, and it still celebrates the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to this day. As the greatest part of that legacy, Juneteenth is the day that the God-given gift of liberty for all Americans was finally proclaimed throughout the land, and it is deserving of its own special recognition and observance.”
The legislation could be taken up as soon as August, when the General Assembly is expected to reconvene to address COVID-19’s impact on the state budget and police reform.
If legislators take up Northam’s proposal during the 2021 session, it would need an emergency clause, which requires 80% support in both legislative chambers, in order to take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature so that it will be in place for Juneteenth 2021.