WILLIAMSBURG — Horns were blown, drums were beaten, and freedom was celebrated Wednesday on the lawn of the Williamsburg Community Building in honor of Juneteenth.

The federal holiday celebrates the news of emancipation reaching Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. There, the last officially enslaved people in the country found out they were free, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

“It’s a very important holiday, especially in the African diaspora,” said Lawrence Gholson II, president of the York-James City-Williamsburg branch of the NAACP, in an interview with The Virginia Gazette in the weeks leading up to the holiday.

“The reason we celebrate it is because the last enslaved folks in Texas in Galveston were not aware, because there was no cellphone, there was no internet.”

The Village Initiative’s Juneteenth Freedom Celebration Wednesday kicked off with a parade around 1 p.m. People held signs celebrating the day and Black culture, and others blew horns as they marched.

People march to celebrate Juneteenth at the Williamsburg Community Building on June 19, 2024. Sam Schaffer/Staff
People march to celebrate Juneteenth at the Williamsburg Community Building on June 19, 2024. Sam Schaffer/Staff

There were also classic cars roaring in the parade.

A classic muscle car roars past a Juneteenth flag at the Williamsburg Community Building as part of the parade celebrating Juneteenth. Sam Schaffer/Staff
A classic muscle car roars past a Juneteenth flag at the Williamsburg Community Building as part of the parade celebrating Juneteenth. Sam Schaffer/Staff

The lawn was lined with tents selling food and promoting local organizations. The Village Initiative, which works with the local school system to address achievement gaps and disproportionate expulsions and suspensions of minority students, had a tent as well.

There was a ceremony dedicated to honoring the class of 1969, the first to graduate from integrated schools in the area, and there was line dancing and other joyous expressions of culture and community.

People line dance in celebration of Juneteenth at the Village Initiative's Freedom Celebration in Williamsburg. Sam Schaffer/Staff
People line dance in celebration of Juneteenth at the Village Initiative’s Freedom Celebration in Williamsburg. Sam Schaffer/Staff

“I’m having fun. This is my first Juneteenth, and it’s beautifully done — I love it,” Janice Williams said. The 73-year-old said she had just learned about Juneteenth in the last few years.

“I was not taught that in public Black schools,” Williams said, clarifying that she went to a segregated school. “I was shocked to learn about this.”

The community event clearly sparked joy in the hundreds of people attending.

“You can just feel the love that’s out here, man,” said Henry Ranger, who owns a pharmacy in the area. “Everybody’s out here — it’s all shades: You got white, you got Black, you got, like I said, people of all colors.”

With the holiday gaining prominence in recent years, more and more attention is paid to the history of the day.

Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons said, “It’s great to see everybody out here enjoying all the food and the festival activities and the music.”

“With the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement and the things that happened a few years ago, understanding and recognizing the culture that had been oppressed for so many years, seeing people come out and celebrate as one community is absolutely important for the city of Williamsburg,” Pons said.

Sam Schaffer, samuel.schaffer@virginiamedia.com