WINCHESTER — An event that, just a few decades ago, was rarely mentioned outside of Black communities is now being observed in the Northern Shenandoah Valley with a week’s worth of public celebrations.

The occasion is Juneteenth, and the first of several weekend commemorations was held by the nonprofit community organization Hood Love on Friday night in front of the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum on the Loudoun Street Mall.

“We do it here on purpose because this is where the [Black Civil War] troops of Winchester were recruited and gathered before they went off to war [in April 1964],” said Melissa Turner, a Hood Love member who brought together speakers, the band Quiet Fire and several food vendors for Friday’s five-hour Juneteenth celebration.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It is held annually on June 19 to mark the day when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and ordered troops in that state to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and freed all slaves. The delay in notification was because the law could not be enforced until Union forces were in control of Confederate states, and Texas was the most remote state in the Confederacy. As a result, Blacks in Texas did not learn they were free until 2½ years after slavery was abolished and 61 days after the Civil War ended.

“I never thought that I would be in Winchester, Virginia, speaking at a Juneteenth celebration,” said Clarissa Kennerly, a Winchester native who now teaches English at Handley High School and was named Teacher of the Year by Winchester Public Schools for 2024.

Kennerly, who described herself as “the only Black student in many of my classes, only learning about slavery, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks,” said she was thrilled that Winchester has advanced to the point where it is hosting several Juneteenth celebrations days after dedicating a museum at the former Douglas School on North Kent Street that honors the staff and students who attended the all-Black institution in the decades before integration in the 1960s.

“My oh my, Winchester, we have certainly grown,” Kennerly said. “And that is a good thing, a great thing, a fantastic thing. … Celebrating Juneteenth allows us to transcend racial, cultural and socio-economic divides and invites us to stand in solidarity with one another as we reflect on the past and envision a better future.”

Another Winchester native and Handley High School teacher who spoke on Friday was Myles Raynor.

“Coming from Winchester, I was labeled a smart Black kid because I was the only Black kid in my AP classes, only Black kid in my honors classes,” said Raynor, who went on to study at Howard University, a historically Black college. “When I went to Howard, that’s when I met all the other kids who were just like me — the smart Black kid. There, I was fighting to be just the smart kid, not the smart Black kid.”

Winchester Sheriff William Sales, the first Black person to hold that office in the city’s 280-year history, told the crowd the Emancipation Proclamation became part of the United States Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865, with the congressional passage of the 13th Amendment.

“Without that 13th Amendment that banned slavery,” Sales said, “I wouldn’t be able to wear this badge today.”

While the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment ended slavery, they didn’t bring equality. Racism and Jim Crow laws held back Blacks and designated them as inferior to whites. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that public opinions began to change. However, racism still exists and some Blacks still feel they are treated like second-class citizens.

“America’s a work in progress,” Sales said. “It’s a slow process. It’s not where we want it to be but it’s going to keep going that way. … I just want the kids to know, you can be whatever you want to be.”

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” added LaVarn Gordon, pastor of River Life Church in Winchester.

While Hood Love’s celebration of Juneteenth was the region’s first of the week, it certainly wasn’t the last. Additional commemorations took place Saturday at the Clarke County Ruritan Fairgrounds near Berryville and Sunday at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester. On Friday, Fremont Street Nursery in Winchester will hold its annual Juneteenth celebration for its young students and their families.

Nationally, the first Juneteenth celebrations were held in 1866 at various communities in Texas. Recognitions slowly spread across the South but, in the 1960s, the event waned in popularity as Blacks focused on winning their civil rights. Commemorations resumed and expanded in the 1970s, and Juneteenth was proclaimed a federal holiday in 2021.