RICHMOND, Va. — In a commonwealth that has long struggled to fully confront a wraith of memory, the announcement to make Juneteenth a state holiday was inconceivable as recently as a few weeks ago.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Tuesday that Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of American slavery, will become a paid state holiday for the first time this Friday, June 19.
The Democratic governor is giving every executive branch employee this Friday off as a paid holiday and will work with the legislature later this year to pass a law codifying Juneteenth as a permanent state holiday. The legislation is likely to pass the Democratic-controlled legislature with little trouble.
The date marks the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation within the far fringes of the defeated Confederacy in 1865, when Union troops brought the news to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas.
Virginia’s announcement comes as separate and unequal American experiences are now broadcast across the nation in painful clarity.
Police violence towards African Americans has become the catalyst for a larger civic conversation – how to ensure a just society for all, rather than unrealized aspirations confined to founding documents of our democracy.
In an interview hours after Virginia’s Juneteenth announcement, Dr. Ravi Perry, the political science department chair of Howard University, discussed the broader implications of Virginia’s historic move.
He said that the step is momentous for Virginia, yet broader change will require stronger action, i.e., voting.
Below are excerpts of Perry’s conversation with WUSA9, lightly edited for clarity and style.
WUSA9: The fact that Virginia made this announcement as it still reckons with its legacy of slave ships docking in 1619, and the Confederacy choosing Virginia as its seat of power, how immense is this announcement in the long arc of Virginia history?
Dr. Ravi Perry: Well it’s monumental, because this narrative has been central to the Black American experience from the beginning, from 1619 in Hampton, Virginia, where the ships with the first enslaved people docked.
It’s a commemoration where slavery firmly took root in the Western world. And for this state to finally say that we want to at least acknowledge the fact that we were participants in slavery, I think it's extremely significant.
This is the state of the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson. It's very significant that Virginia, of all of the states, is aware of the signal this sends, recognizing the struggles of a populace that the seat of the Confederacy once fought to enslave.
WUSA9: It’s remarkable how fast our contemporary politics has shifted in this moment, with Juneteenth now coming to the forefront of discussion as a way to recognize centuries of struggles.
Dr. Ravi Perry: Absolutely, and we see Congressional Black Caucus members, like Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who are planning on announcing a national Juneteenth holiday this week.
For Virginia politics, we can’t ignore where Gov. Northam was last February, embroiled in a blackface yearbook scandal.
Perhaps it shows that maybe he has in fact shifted, and has learned about important Black Virginia history. But I think what's significant here is that Northam went a step further. Not only is he entering legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday, but he is also making it a paid state holiday.
And that's quite significant in a sense, given that African Americans were burdened with slave labor in the Commonwealth of Virginia for generations, unpaid. What a message to send, 400 years later.
WUSA9: This moment for Virginia was largely inconceivable until essentially days ago. What are the main forces you’ve seen that have held back this moment for Juneteenth and racial reckoning?
Dr. Ravi Perry: Virginia has really only recently become a purple state and a bellwether state in national politics. Certainly, through the first decade of the 21st century, Virginia was largely a reliable red state, meaning that much of the state leaned conservative in its ideology and leaned Republican.
And that did unfortunately mean within the far-right quarters of the party, we saw a higher degree of individual racism.
The idea that Virginia’s population as a red state would be interested in commemorating Black Virginia history was just not there at the time, until this moment.
WUSA9: Virginia’s Republican Party today said it applauds this Juneteenth decision, and that it is the party of Lincoln and proud of its legacy abolishing slavery. Do you feel this is a new Republican party embracing Gov. Northam’s move?
Dr. Ravi Perry: I think the demographics are forcing Virginia Republicans to embrace these cultural changes. You cannot win statewide Virginia without metropolitan votes in the Norfolk area, Richmond and Northern Virginia.
And those people are diverse people, many of them are African American, many of them are liberal.
Only a few years ago, Republicans arguably ran some fairly conservative candidates for statewide office, and they essentially lost significantly. Corey Stewart of Prince William is a prime example.
WUSA9: You’ve expressed skepticism that the national energy leading to today’s Juneteenth announcement could engender lasting change. Tell us why?
Dr. Ravi Perry: Well, one, we hear an inconsistent message from this movement, and that's unfortunate. ‘Defund the Police’ is one thing, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is something else.
Secondly, much of this movement is driven by young people, and young people are certainly the backbone of the historic American political protest movements.
But the problem is, prior generations did what young people are doing now on the street. Yet they also marched to the polls. And so, the question is whether or not that's going to happen this time.
Recent history tells us that young people historically do not vote. We know for a fact right now, that the majority of LGBTQ people who are eligible to vote did not vote last election. Same thing with Black people.
Same thing with young people, and so many other groups as well. And so, the issue is, even when you control for voter suppression, even when you control for ex-felon disenfranchisement, etc., there still is a majority of eligible Americans who do not participate in the electoral process by casting their ballots.
If this change is going to be lasting, it's going to require the same people who are out there marching to be registering to vote, and to vote accordingly.