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Postponed: William & Mary to host area’s first Juneteenth celebration

  • People sit around a brick structure like a hearth in an outdoor locationWinning concept:
    Remembering the enslaved:  The Juneteenth celebration will be held near the site where the Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary is expected to be built. The concept for the memorial (pictured here) is titled “Hearth” and resembles a brick fireplace, representing both a place of work for the enslaved as well as a place of gathering and community.  
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Update: W&M's first Juneteenth celebration will now be held in 2021. The decision was made for two primary reasons. For the first year of the event, organizers did not want to place participants or performers in the position of choosing between attendance and an uncertain health situation. Also, they wanted to be certain the first Juneteenth event in this community is a meaningful and significant event. - Ed.

William & Mary is partnering with the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP and the City of Williamsburg to host the area’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Other organizations and groups will likely join as partners.

The event, to take place June 19 beginning at 3 p.m., will include live music, vendors, food trucks and performances by local talent, including actress Morgan McCoy. It is free and open to the public. More information will be released closer to the date of the celebration. The celebration will take place on campus near the site of the planned Memorial to African Americans Enslaved by William & Mary, which is expected to be erected within or near the university’s Historic Campus.

“Smithsonian Magazine fittingly called Juneteenth ‘our other Independence Day.’ William & Mary is excited to see the commemoration flourish in the Historic Triangle,” said President Katherine A. Rowe. “Our inaugural Juneteenth celebration comes at an important moment. We have entered the second decade of the Lemon Project’s groundbreaking work to tell a more complete and inclusive story of the university’s past. W&M welcomes the opportunity to celebrate Juneteenth with our entire region.”

While not recognized as a federal holiday, the observance of June 19, 1865, as the African-American Emancipation Day, also called Freedom Day, has spread across the United States and beyond. It marks the day on which Union soldiers brought news about the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas. While Juneteenth celebrates freedom, it also highlights community, education and achievement in the African-American community.

“The celebration of Juneteenth, the date on which news of Lincoln freeing slaves in Confederate States finally reached Texas, has been celebrated in communities throughout the United States of America since the early part of the 20th century,” said Brian J. Smalls, branch president of the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP and a member of the Juneteenth planning committee. “Celebrating Juneteenth in the Greater Williamsburg community is long overdue. With so much rich history right here in our own backyard, it makes sense to add another chapter to it commemorating such a momentous occasion in our nation's history.”

A committee of community members, faculty, staff and students chaired by Chief Diversity Officer Chon Glover has been meeting since last fall to plan the celebration. While the program is still being finalized, one of the performers will be McCoy, an actress, author and speaker known for her one-woman show “Evolution of a Black Girl: From the Slave House to the White House.” McCoy received her undergraduate degree from Hampton University and her master’s from Regent University.

“The City of Williamsburg is honored to partner with William & Mary and the NAACP on this commemoration,” said Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling ’83. “Williamsburg is steeped in American history, some of it is joyful, some painful and some redemptive, and it’s important that we recognize that history in full so that we may continue to learn from it. This event will help us do that while also bringing campus and community together to celebrate the end of an abhorrent institution.”

The celebration coincides with planning underway for a memorial at William & Mary. The university hosted an international competition in 2018 to solicit ideas for the memorial’s concept, and the winner was announced in April 2019. The concept, created by William Sendor '11, is titled “Hearth” and resembles a brick fireplace, representing both a place of work for enslaved people as well as a place of gathering and community. Baskervill Architects has been selected to transform the artist’s concept into a constructible design, according to Gregg Shipp, director of planning, design and construction. The memorial design kickoff meeting with the building committee was held last month, and several more are scheduled over the next few months as the team works collaboratively to finalize the details. The design documents are expected to be completed by late summer, said Shipp.

The memorial is part of W&M’s continuing efforts to more fully recognize the vital contributions of African Americans to the university. The idea for the memorial came from the Lemon Project, a long-term research effort to explore the university’s history with slavery and its ongoing relationship with the African-American community. Juneteenth is another extension of those collective efforts.

“The York-James City-Williamsburg Branch of the NAACP is proud to partner with William & Mary, along with the other corporate partners for this event,” said Smalls. “The Lemon Project is a valiant effort to tell the full story of one of our nation's most prestigious academic institutions. Telling the whole story is important for our community and the nation, so we are glad to play a role in this endeavor.”