By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
With Juneteenth now a federal holiday, the first new addition since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, public awareness about its history continues to swell. Juneteenth marks the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free. Word officially arrived on June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended and two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Fast-forward 156 years, and commemorative events have exploded in number and type, ranging from exuberant celebrations to solemn memorials. Though mostly virtual, the city of Alexandria joined communities across the country last weekend in celebrating the new holiday, a move Alexandria Black History Museum Director Audrey Davis called “necessary.”
“It’s a great way to not only celebrate but to honor those who worked so hard and had no voice, and it’s a great way to celebrate African American culture,” Davis said.
Here are some of the ways Alexandrians celebrated and honored Juneteenth last weekend.
Walking through history
Davis said that by far the most popular event last weekend was a virtual tour of the Alexandria African American Heritage Northern Waterfront Trail, which illuminates the history of enslaved and free African Americans who worked and lived along the waterfront from the foot of King Street.
Alexandria Black History Museum staff originally created the northern route tour in November 2020, and expanded on it by enlisting the African American Heritage Trail Committee and a team of professional and community historians to put together an interactive program. The Juneteenth tour included prerecorded pieces at the actual sites, pictures of the sites in the 1940s juxtaposed with how they look today and an in-depth panel discussion.
“We wanted to highlight some of the really interesting stories, so it was a great way to do the event,” Davis said.
Because so many people signed up for the tour, staff plans to launch a southern route virtually once it’s finished, and eventually a West End route as well.
“Sometimes you forget the history of that place and what it meant to people,” Davis said. “People want to know more about the places where they live, and here was an opportunity to do that.”
Singing from the soul
Almost 230 people joined a Zoom call on June 19 to hear the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices perform a prerecorded concert at Jones Point Park and the Alexandria African American Heritage Park. The group even recreated a photo in the museum’s collection that depicts African Americans picnicking at Jones Point in 1897.
The recording also featured interviews with Davis and Lillian Stanton Patterson, the museum’s retired curator and the city’s oldest working employee.
Patterson’s interview included discussion about a photo she recently found of her mother working at the Torpedo Factory Art Center during World War II. Patterson’s late husband, Edward Lloyd Patterson, worked as a teacher and later as an administrator at Parker-Gray High School. Her eldest daughter, Marilyn, serves as the executive director at First Night, an Alexandria nonprofit that showcases performance art.
“She’s amazing; she has a great mind and great memory of Alexandria history,” Davis said, calling Patterson an “Alexandria living legend.” “There’s a long history of being involved in Alexandria. And that’s really what Juneteenth is about: celebrating family history.”
The Zoom chat included local attendees, in addition to National Parks service people from Maine and staff from the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.
Davis attributes the concert’s popularity to the Revels’ known dedication to sharing historical truth and the direction of Andrea Jones Blackford, the artistic director of the event.
“They appear in period clothing, they do meticulous research about the history, and they all have beautiful voices,” Davis said. “The scripts [and] stories they tell are lovely and compelling.”
For the first time, City Hall, the Market Square fountain and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial gleamed with shades of green, red and purple to honor Juneteenth. In coordination with the Office of Historic Alexandria, the illumination took place from June 18 to June 20.
Juneteenth was celebrated as a state holiday in Virginia in 2020 by executive order, and Alexandria recognized it as a paid holiday for city staff in 2020 and 2021.
Visit Alexandria CEO Patricia Washington said that the City Hall lighting represents Juneteenth’s “immense importance” to the organization and city.
“We were so pleased to see Alexandria’s expanded events and happenings honoring and celebrating Juneteenth,” Washington said. “[We’ll] continue to uncover Alexandria’s history and uplift undertold stories … for folks to experience not only on Juneteenth, but year-round.”
Davis, who started working at the Black History Museum in 1993 and has been celebrating Juneteenth for even longer, still vividly remembers when people didn’t know what the holiday was. She said the evolution in collective awareness has been encouraging to witness.
Many of the early African American sites don’t exist anymore, so by commemorating the holiday, Davis said people are now equipped with an opportunity to learn about the African American people that have lived and worked in Alexandria, heavily contributing to the culture and economy since its founding.
“People went from asking what it is to now asking, ‘What are you doing for Juneteenth?’,” Davis said. “That’s been the big change.”