On Jan. 1, 1836, in the midst of the American Civil War, then-President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, ordering that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State … in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The proclamation did not officially put an end to all legal slavery in America (that would not happen until 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1864), but it did mean freedom for millions of enslaved people living in Confederate states, including the people of Texas.
Juneteenth celebrates the events of June 19, 1865, when Major Gen. Gordon Granger and his Union Army troops arrived in Galveston, TX to inform those enslaved there of their freedom more than two years after Lincoln issued his proclamation.
Last year, Pres. Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth National Independence Day the eleventh official federal holiday.
Locally, two Juneteenth events were held in Martinsville on Saturday, ahead of the official observance on Monday, when American flags were set out along the streets in uptown Martinsville in acknowledgement of the day.
The Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI) partnered with the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce for a celebration at the Farmers’ Market in Uptown. SOVAH Health-Martinsville also sponsored the event.
FAHI board member Joyce Staples welcomed everyone to the event, which drew an estimated crowd of 50 people, and said that, though this was the first Juneteenth event the organization held, she hoped it would become an annual occurrence.
Staples paid tribute to Opal Lee who, she said, “walked over 1,500 miles to make sure that the people understood that they were free. Lee, a retired teacher, is often called the “grandmother of Juneteenth.” She led annual walks to advocate for the creation of a federal Juneteenth holiday. Each walk was 2.5-miles to symbolize the 2.5 years it took for the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach the people of Galveston.
Staples introduced Valeria Edwards who led the crowd in the singing of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Standing, and led by Edwards’ soaring vocals, the lyrics of the song rang through the market area:
“Lift every voice and sing ‘til Earth and Heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ‘til victory is won … We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Out from the gloomy past, ‘til now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
Following an invocation by the Rev. Kenneth Davis, a performance by the praise team of Iron Belt Christian Church, and another song from Edwards, who sang Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World,” Naomi Muse, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, drew links between the past and current, local events, and stressed the importance of voting.
“From 1619 to 1863, 244 years of enslavement, and after that we were still not freed until the end of the Civil War,” she said. “We lived through oppression, Jim Crow, and now we’re living through a resurgence. It’s just despicable what’s going on in our country.”
She told the gathered crowd that “every vote matters. Every election matters. We cannot go out and vote for president and let the City Council and the Board of Supervisors and the school boards continue as they are. This is how we got into this mess. Your vote matters. One vote matters. Not only does your vote matter, your voice matters,” and she noted the importance of attending local government meetings and being vocal.
She recounted a recent experience in a courtroom – and a ruling with which she disagreed – in connection with an incident in Henry County.
No charges were filed in connection with the incident.
The hearing on Friday was to extend a restraining order.
“The man walked out (of the courtroom) vindicated. He had done nothing wrong,” Muse said. “This little lady was sitting there (in the courtroom) crying. Do you think her tears moved the judge? Do you think her tears moved anybody? How many times have we cried in enslavement? How many times were our children ripped out of our arms and sold? How many times? Our tears don’t change nothing. Our votes change. Get up and vote.”
She also encouraged those gathered to video encounters with law enforcement.
Turning to the issue of reversion, Muse said, “they want me to say we want the City of Martinsville to be in Henry County. I’m in Henry County and I want you to know, Henry County Black folks, you better watch your back because you don’t have anybody outside of Jesus and Garrett Dillard to help you out.”
She said that she did not want to put a damper on the day’s celebrations but, rather wanted “to put a light in your heart that you will understand that we came through many hard toils. We came through hell, and we survived. Do not let two pennies in your pocket and a loaf of bread make you stay home on Election Day,” she urged. “We’re celebrating our freedom, but there are people right now who want us back in enslavement, second class citizenship.”
Elsewhere in Martinsville, Books and Crannies, a book shop owned by DeShanta Hairston in the uptown area, hosted two read aloud events for children, one for toddlers and one for early grade children.
Yluelhaldi Rose read the same book to both groups, “The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States,” written by Alliah L. Agostini with illustrations by Sawyer Cloud. The book chronicles the evolution of the holiday for young readers, from America’s Independence Day (which, it notes, did not mean independence for everyone) all the way through the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and the creation of the federal holiday in 2021.
After the reading, children had a number of activities they could work on, including a Juneteenth word search with terms like “Coretta Scott King,” “Galveston,” and “Thirteenth,” and a page which allowed them to design their own Juneteenth flag or book cover.
Hairston said this was the first year the shop hosted a public event for the holiday. “Now that it’s a (federal) holiday, it makes it easier to plan for because people are actually observing it,” she said.
She said she decided on an event focused on younger children in an effort to “educate the kids with stories” and encourage them to start reading early.
This year, he issued a proclamation for the holiday calling Juneteenth “a chance to celebrate human freedom, reflect on the grievous and ongoing legacy of slavery, and rededicate ourselves to rooting out the systemic racism that continues to plague our society as we strive to deliver the full promise of America to every American.”
The holiday itself, the proclamation said, is “in equal measure a remembrance of both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation, as well as a celebration of the promise of a brighter morning to come. On Juneteenth, we remember our extraordinary capacity to heal, to hope, and to emerge from our worst moments as a stronger, freer, and more just Nation. It is also a day to celebrate the power and resilience of Black Americans, who have endured generations of oppression in the ongoing journey toward equal justice, equal dignity, equal rights, and equal opportunity in America.”
In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin also issued a proclamation recognizing the day in which he noted that Juneteenth is the “oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery” and encouraged Virginians “to honor the great strides African Americans have made and to learn, unite, and celebrate as we continue to work to create a more perfect union.”