Celebrating Freedom: Juneteenth and Emancipation Day Commemorations, Richmond, Va.
Alice W. Campbell
On June 16, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam proposed making June 19, Juneteenth, an official state holiday commemorating the end of slavery in America. Virginia would become the second state to celebrate the day as a paid holiday. Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Texas since 1980. The announcement, made in the former capital of the Confederacy, places Virginia and Texas as appropriate anchors for what may one day become a national holiday.
June 19, 1865 was the day that emancipation reached Texas, the most remote slave-holding state. On that day, Union Major General Gordon Granger read the following order, as later reported in the New York Times, July 7, 1865:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
—General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
While Americans’ understanding and support of a Juneteenth holiday has grown in recent years, a number of other important dates have been celebrated as Emancipation Days since the end of the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued September 22, 1862, declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s order took effect on January 1, 1863. Both September 22 and January 1 have been remembered and celebrated in various parts of the country. In Richmond, Va., April 3, 1865, the date that Union troops took over the city, was for many years a day of Emancipation parades and gatherings in the African American community.
From the beginning, tensions between whites and blacks over the choice of April 3 for celebration are apparent, as is the role of the press in shaping and reflecting public opinion. The deliberate language of an 1866 broadside, held by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, seeks to “most respectfully inform the public” that the formerly enslaved are not celebrating the fall of the Confederacy “as it has been stated in the papers of the City.” Instead, the committee members named on the poster emphasize the religious nature of the celebration with gratitude to God as Liberator rather than glee at the “failure of the Southern Confederacy.”
Coverage of Emancipation Day events in Richmond’s white newspapers can be useful and instructive for understanding both subtle and overt manifestations of white supremacy in Virginia. At the 40th anniversary celebration of 1905, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer notes approvingly that the crowd was “orderly and was the subject of favorable comments,” but also inserts a hint of knowing derision: “An amusing incident was the cheering of ‘Dixie’ on this occasion.” Later, the writer claims the April 3 date for Richmonders commemorating evacuation day:
Old darkeys, with ante-bellum beards, marched beside negroes of the younger generation, and cooks, waiters, porters, washerwomen and barbers knocked off from work to join in the festivities incidental to the celebration of the day that really marks the fall of Richmond rather than the negroes emancipation.
Elsewhere on the same page, another writer’s commentary on the sizable (“twenty minutes in passing”) Emancipation Day gathering, again emphasizes the theme of civil order, and clearly illustrates the cost of peace under white control.
“Could there be any better evidence that the negroes of Richmond are free to do as they please, so long as they keep within the laws and within the proprieties [emphasis added]. And could there be any better evidence that the whites and the blacks are living together on friendly terms?”
Though reporting that “the colored people were in no way disturbed by the whites,” a small notice several pages later in the same issue of the Times-Dispatch, reports an altercation that occurred when a Passenger and Power Company street car attempted to push through the Emancipation Day parade. Police were called and one of the black parade participants was arrested.
The motorman and conductor’s impatience and the ensuing fight took place within an ongoing struggle over segregation and public transportation. The Richmond African American community had been boycotting electric street cars since April 1904, when the Passenger and Power Company announced a policy of segregated seating. Conductors and motormen were given the authority to carry firearms and to force seat changes. In their newspapers, The Richmond Planet and the St. Luke Herald, black community leaders John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker urged black citizens to walk or find alternate forms of transportation in protest. The boycott continued until the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in 1906 requiring segregation in public transportation.
The proposal to establish Juneteenth as a celebration for all Virginians represents the changes Virginians have embraced, and the Commonwealth’s aspirations for continued progress toward justice and healing. The end of slavery requires recognition and celebration as a welcome turning point for the nation. As we consider that moment in our collective past, we may look to photographs, ephemera, and news accounts to stir our spirits and increase our understanding. These documents thus offer us a window onto the past and a mirror for our present selves.
For further reading and exploration:
Juneteenth 2020. Justice. Freedom. Democracy. BLKFREEDOM.org
Gates, H. L., Jr. What is Juneteenth? The African Americans. Many Rivers to Cross. pbs.org
Governor Northam to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday. News Room. Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam. (Commonwealth of Virginia website)
Bonis, R. (2009 October 13). Emancipation Day Parade, Richmond, Virginia, April 3, 1905. The Shockoe Examiner.
Eisen, J. (1986 September 9). Boycott in Richmond. The Washington Post
Richmond Streetcar Boycott, 1904. Shaping the Constitution. Resources from the Library of Virginia and the Library of Congress
Smith, J. D. (2002). Managing white supremacy. Race, politics, and citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press
Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.