Published June 15, 2023

by Kalela Williams

Juneteenth as a national holiday is a long time coming. The first Juneteenth celebrations held in Texas in 1866 celebrated when General Order No. 3, issued by Union General Gordan Granger in 1865, declared “all slaves are free.” But June 19th wasn’t the only date, day, and way African Americans had celebrated the end of enslavement, whenever it reached them legally or defacto (remember that the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in states deemed “in rebellion against the United States,” but left hundreds of thousands of people in bondage).  

Whether called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, or Jubilee Day; and whether happening in January or April, other celebrations of different markers of freedom were documented in Philadelphia, coastal South Carolina, in Virginia cities like Richmond and Alexandria, and other states throughout the 1860s.   

But it was Juneteenth that took hold in a big way, with festive celebrations evolving into traditions including barbeques, rodeos, and even red foods like fruity soda or strawberry cake. Wearing new clothes, enjoying music and dancing, and even marching in flower-bedecked parades came to mark this day.

As I’ve thought about this year’s Juneteenth, I’m looking back at three Virginia 2023 Festival of the Book picks that connect with the themes that I see in this holiday: 

Sing Her Name by Rosalyn Story 

Two musically gifted women’s lives overlap over the boundaries of time. With racism barring her way, a nineteenth century concert artist can never achieve the place in history she deserves. Then, long after her death in poverty and obscurity, a 19th century waitress, talented but musically untaught, has a chance to revive this singer’s name and reach her own success– if her family ties don’t hold her back. This book of historical fiction by Dallas, Texas author Rosalyn Story is musical with the concepts of family and legacy. The Virginia Festival of the Book, in partnership with Charlottesville’s African American Authors Book Club, hosted Rosalyn Story in conversation with Judy Moore.  

His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Toluse Olorunnipa and Robert Samuels 

This Pulitzer prize winning book of non-fiction takes George Floyd out of the headlines, out of the movement, and centers the man himself, starting with a boy growing up in Houston’s Third Ward. It was the murder of George Floyd that became a catalyst of Juneteenth becoming a federally-recognized holiday. And there is a haunting connection between George Floyd and Juneteenth. One of the first protests of his murder was in Houston’s Emancipation Park, near Jake Yates High School, Floyd’s alma mater. And it was Reverend Jack Yates, a Virginia-born formerly-enslaved man, who invested in the land that became Emancipation Park, the site of early Juneteenth celebrations. The authors of this biography appeared for a panel discussion with poet John Keene, as part of the Festival’s Afternoon with the National Book Awards. 

The Book of Delights and Inciting Joy by Ross Gay  

Ross Gay at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville during the Festival of the Book on 3/25/23. Photo by Pat Jarrett, Virginia Humanities

Some of my favorite old pictures of Juneteenth date back to the early 20th century. They show carriages draped and dripping with flowers, ready for a celebratory parade. Even with the images in black-and-white, I can imagine the burst of color and sweet scents. In 1865 the news of freedom, after all, was met with joy among formerly enslaved people and their free kin. “Everybody went wild,” a formerly enslaved man, Felix Haywood, recollected. “We all felt like heroes…just like that, we were free.” So it’s this book of essays and this book of poetry by gardener and author Ross Gay that truly capture the spirit of Juneteenth. Ross Gay joined the Center for the Book’s own assistant director, Aran Donavan, for an insightful conversation during the Festival.  


There’s so much meaning Juneteenth holds for all of us!  

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