Twenty-five years before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, the Elegba Folklore Society held its inaugural Juneteenth observance at what was then called the Virginia Historical Society.

At the time, the Juneteenth celebration was largely regional. But by the late 1990s, you could sense that its larger moment was arriving.


Sharmae Stringfield cleanses the space with a bundle of rosemary before meditating by the river on June 9 in Richmond.

Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 — more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox — with a message of freedom for the enslaved.

Texas is but one example of how emancipation’s timeline defied chronology.


Rodney Stith performs during the Jubilation in June at the Intermediate Terminal in Richmond on June 15.

In Richmond, freedom arrived on April 3, 1865, when U.S. Colored Troops marched into the fallen capital of the Confederacy.

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But in Norfolk, the date of January 1, 1863 — the effective date of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — held special resonance.

Hampton Roads was Union-occupied, and Lincoln’s order was only meant to apply to the enslaved outside Union control. But that didn’t stop Black people from launching what would become an annual Emancipation celebration.

Tennessee was also under Union control and exempt from the proclamation. Its Emancipation Day is on August 8, commemorating the day in 1863 that Andrew Johnson — its military governor, who succeeded Lincoln as president — freed his personal slaves.


Riley Couser, 10, dances to West African drum and dance during the Peter Paul RVA of Church Hill Juneteenth “Day of Freedom” Celebration.

“I think that Juneteenth can symbolically represent emancipation-oriented concepts of freedom everywhere,” said Janine Bell, founding president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society. “But I think that the occurrences in the various states and areas are equally important.”

For Bell, the holiday is about liberation, and much more.

“It’s a way to a way to give homage to our ancestors, who gave so much with their fortitude,” she said. It’s also a reminder of lack of equity and access still plaguing African Americans.


People walk along the Trail of the Enslaved Africans on June 9 in Richmond.

“We can use this holiday — this holy day, if you will — to get centered and grounded on our choices, and for the city and the community we want to create.”

Michael Paul Williams

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