Juneteenth Celebration Springs from Community-wide Collaboration Organizations across the Lexington and Rockbridge County areas have planned a Juneteenth event that will include an art show, live music, a free raffle and more.
Three years ago, a small group at Washington and Lee University began to collect information about Black cultural programming within a 75-mile radius, circulating it to interested parties in a monthly newsletter called “Groove.” Eventually, they noticed a pattern: Organizations were limiting their own attendance by holding events on the same day that were of interest to the same audience.
They decided to establish a more organized group, Spotlighting Black Rockbridge, that would bring together representatives of all the major players – including city government, nonprofits, colleges, historical societies and civic groups – to plan great community events that don’t overlap one another but benefit from the power of collaboration.
One significant result of that effort will take place on June 19, when all members of the community are invited to downtown Lexington for a Juneteenth celebration that will include an art show, dance performance, live music, themed restaurant offerings, and a free raffle with prizes that include gift certificates to downtown businesses.
“It has been extremely gratifying to be part of this movement to bring together community organizations to celebrate Black history and the history of our nation,” said Sascha Goluboff, director of W&L’s Office of Community-Based Learning and a professor of sociology and anthropology. “I anticipate an increased interest in collaborative efforts going forward, and I can’t wait for the Juneteenth festivities to begin.”
This year’s celebration will mark the first time a community-wide Juneteenth event has taken place in Lexington. One of the anchoring events will be the Juneteenth Art Show, which was organized for the first time last year by Lexington nonprofit Project Horizon.
“We are very excited about the way it’s growing beyond the original piece of what we are doing,” said Judy Casteele, executive director of Project Horizon. “To see it become a community event that the city, the university and others are involved in, that’s exciting for us. It is exciting to see the community invested in these efforts.”
Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “19th,” commemorates the emancipation of slavery in the United States. It originated in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, when U.S. Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived there to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Although President Abraham Lincoln had signed the proclamation nearly three years before, on Sept. 22, 1862, it was not immediately adopted across all states. Enforcement depended on the advancement of U.S. troops, which were scarce in remote Texas, so it became a final holdout. The enforcement of emancipation there after a long wait was truly cause for celebration.
The first Juneteenth celebration took place in Galveston on June 19, 1866, and it has since caught on across the country. Although it is not a federal holiday, only three U.S. states – Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota – have yet to recognize it as a state holiday. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared it a permanent paid state holiday in June 2020, and Lexington adopted it as a formal city holiday this year.
“I can’t speak for city council, [but] I think it focuses more attention on a date and an event that is important to the entire nation — particularly important, of course, to Black Americans,” said Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz, who has served on Spotlighting Black Lexington. “As I’ve been reflecting on this, it did occur to me that it wasn’t until Juneteenth that all men and women in this country were free, and that our laws, our constitution and our Declaration of Independence did not apply to all Americans until that date. That’s pretty significant.”
The Juneteenth planning group includes representatives from all over Lexington and Rockbridge County, including the City of Lexington, CARE Rockbridge, Rockbridge NAACP, Project Horizon, 50 Ways Rockbridge, Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, the Rockbridge Historical Society, Historical Lexington Foundation, Randolph Street United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church of Lexington. Members have been meeting periodically on Zoom since early 2021.
“Having the right people at the table and having regular conversations are two things that have been invaluable,” said Michael Hill, professor of Africana studies at W&L. “Conversations or developments that could take days or weeks are taken care of in minutes.” For example, he said, obtaining the appropriate permits for street closures could have been a lengthy process, but having Halasz and Lexington City Council member Marilyn Alexander at the meeting made that task a breeze. “I think it’s been a wonderful experience, and hopefully it will be the foundation of collaborations connected to MLK and other anchoring programs that exist across the calendar year,” Hill said.
Program activities begin prior to June 19, starting with Project Horizon’s Juneteenth Art Show, which will open at Nelson Gallery on Washington Street on June 2. The exhibition will be open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, through June 26. Project Horizon is accepting entries through the end of May. Cash prizes will be awarded to art show winners, and anyone can help select the People’s Choice Award winner by voting on the Project Horizon website prior to June 19. For more information, click here.
On Monday, June 14, the Rockbridge Historical Society will host a Zoom presentation called “Fighting for Freedom: Black Union Soldiers from Rockbridge,” which will tell the story of more than 60 Black men from the county who served in 28 Civil War regiments, enlisting in 13 states. Visit RockbridgeHistory.org for the Zoom link. (Note: A recording of this program is now available online.) A few days later, on June 17, W&L’s Africana Studies Program will host a Zoom movie screening and discussion of “Miss Juneteenth.” Register here.
The festivities on June 19 kick off at noon with music at Hopkins Green, where complimentary cookies from W&L Catering will be distributed while supplies last. At 2 p.m., Kuumba Dance Ensembles of Lynchburg will provide a West African drum and dance experience at the park.
From there, the celebration moves to Washington Street, which will be closed to traffic between S. Jefferson and S. Main streets. Steel drum band Oasis Island Sounds will play live music in the street from 5 to 7 p.m., at the same time as the Juneteenth Art Show reception in nearby Nelson Gallery. A free raffle will take place at the art show, and entrants must sign up for the raffle at the gallery between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on June 19. At 6 p.m., during the band’s performance break, winners of both the art show and the raffle will be announced. Raffle participants must be present to win.
Raffle prizes consist of gift certificates that have been generously donated by Main Street Lexington and multiple downtown Lexington restaurants. The participating restaurants also plan to feature a special Juneteenth menu item all weekend. Those restaurants are Heliotrope, Pronto, Blue Sky, The Gin Hotel, Sweet Things, Southern Inn, Tonic and Salerno’s. Red Hen is donating a portion of their dinner receipts on June 19 to the celebration.
In coordination with the Juneteenth event, librarians at W&L, VMI and Rockbridge Regional Libraries have created a reading list and guide to artifacts from the archives. Click here to access those resources.
Program planners said that while Juneteenth has always been an important occasion, it is now more in the public consciousness as both local and national events focus attention on racial inequities and the importance of honoring Black history as part of American history. And as related conversations continue to take place in Lexington, they said, it provides an important opportunity for community-building
“We face a propitious moment,” Hill said. “We are making decisions about the fabric of our community, and those decisions will determine our future. Individuals attempt to create an identity. Our town and county seek to construct a fresh sense of civic possibility. We all contribute humble but earnest effort to the process, and events like Juneteenth are grist for the mill.”