At Juneteenth event, a push for understanding of Black history in Virginia

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Gov. Ralph Northam spoke at a Fort Monroe Juneteenth event Friday, one year after he made the day a state holiday.

Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, heard from Union soldiers they were free. Fort Monroe is where the first enslaved Africans were brought to British North America in 1619.

Northam announced a book providing a “concise survey of Black history in Virginia” that will be distributed to every high school, middle school and library in the state. The book, based on a Virginia Museum of History and Culture exhibit “Determined: The 400 Year Struggle for Black Equality,” is a result of a partnership between the museum and the Commonwealth.

“It’s important for us all to better understand what has shaped who we are as a nation,” he said.

The event took place at Continental Park, a few hundred yards where Fort Monroe is planning a monument to mark the landing of the enslaved Africans. Right now, there is only a plaque.

Other speakers included Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa A. Igloria, Immediate Past Chair of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources Colita Fairfax and CEO and Founder of Sankofa Projects Chadra Pittman.

Pittman began the event with a ceremonial call to the Ancestors, wearing traditional colorful African garb.

“I think it’s important that we represent our culture,” she said. “It’s very important for people to know that Africans did not lose their culture through the transatlantic slave trade. People think they were in the bottom of those ships, and they lost everything, and they really didn’t.”

Fairfax said when people talk about slavery, they should remember it is an interruption of African culture.

“You never start off history with enslavement, you start it off with African history,” she said.

Northam established a commission on African American History Education in August 2019. In October 2020, the state Board of Education approved changes to add more Black history to Virginia’s curriculum.

Fairfax said historic justice must be matched with economic and political justice.

“Juneteenth is not a hashtag,” she said. “It is a compelling moment about what?”

“Freedom,” a crowd of about 200 responded.

Igloria, a professor of creative writing at Old Dominion University, presented an original poem called “Dear America” about “the dangers of forgetting.”

“Dear America, and now, now that we’re told we have the dream, how do we make sure it doesn’t deteriorate?” she read.

The event ended with the audience standing and singing along to the the Black National Anthem, based on a poem James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1900.

“Let us march on ‘til victory is won,” they sang.