Today marks an important milestone in American history: 155 years ago, the Union Army’s Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War — and slavery in America.
Called Juneteenth or Emancipation Day, the event came more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation putting an end to slavery.
Locally, Booker T. Washington National Monument has been hosting its annual Juneteenth celebration to raise awareness of what the day means. In his book, “Up From Slavery,” Washington, who was 9 and living on the Burroughs plantation, poignantly remembered the day he became a free person.
“[T]he most distinct thing that I now recall in connection with the scene was that some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper — the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading, we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.”
That moment for Franklin County’s own native son resonated again this week, when Gov. Ralph Northam used his Tuesday update on Virginia’s effort to combat COVID-19, to address statewide protests against racism and racial injustice.
“It is important that we hear these voices and listen to what they’re saying,” Northam said.
The governor also announced he would introduce legislation to mark Juneteenth as a paid state holiday. “This symbol, the holiday, is one step forward toward reconciliation. It’s one step forward in the work we have been doing to create real change,” Northam said.
Looking on from the podium was Virginia Beach native and well-known musician Pharrell Williams.
“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,” he said. “They’re dancing in celebration because their lives are finally being acknowledged.”
While it’s true that change doesn’t happen overnight, just listening to each other is a good start. And that’s exactly what the Franklin County Board of Supervisors did later that night. More than two dozen residents — some who waited several hours to speak — shared their thoughts about the Confederate statue that is on the front lawn of the county courthouse. Some said they were in favor of keeping it there, and others said they want to see it rehomed because it is a reminder of a painful past.
Listening is learning, and it is possible that we can use what’s been learned from the past to better ourselves for the future.
As Washington said in “Up From Slavery,” “In the long run, the world is going to have the best, and any difference in race, religion, or previous history will not long keep the world from what it wants.”