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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 11:00am June 14, 2023,

How Pharrell Williams helped to make Juneteenth a holiday in Virginia

Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had been in office for less than two years in 2020 when people started asking him to resign over a racist yearbook photo. The governor had reportedly appeared in a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page that shows a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.

As calls to resign piled up, musician Pharrell Williams, who grew up in Virginia Beach, spoke with the governor. “We had a conversation about it and I told him my position: that I thought that he should step down, and he said that he wouldn’t,” Williams told Variety in 2020. “He told me, ‘I’m going to work for this position.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna hold you to it. I’m going to be the rock in your shoe.’”

According to Variety, Williams laid out a proposition — sign an executive order making Juneteenth a state holiday. The American record producer believed that had it not been for the controversy over the yearbook photo, “that might not have gotten done.”

“If you’re going to sit in this position, then you’ve got to work, and he really did put a lot of points on the board since he got in that situation. It made me think it was meant for him to be the person in a position to help — that he could be an ally and an advocate and to help us move this across the line. There’s a lot he can do,” said the Happy singer.

Following the governor’s conversation with Williams, he (the governor) went on to learn more about the Black experience by watching documentaries like “13th” while his policies also centered on racial equality and social justice, Variety said. Most importantly, on June 16, 2020, the governor and Williams made history in Virginia when they announced that June 19 or Juneteenth will officially be recognized as a state holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

“This is what listening looks like,” Williams said in his speech at the press conference. “This is our chance to lead by example. This is our chance to lead, to truly embrace the importance of Juneteenth and treat it as a celebration of freedom that black people deserve.”

“This is about proper recognition. This is the chance for our government, our corporations and our citizens to all stand in solidarity with their African-American brothers and sisters,” the rapper and songwriter added.

Northam announced that all state employees in the executive branch will be given a paid day off on Juneteenth and Williams asked businesses to do the same. “I would like to see corporations that call Virginia their home give people the paid day off. There is no turning back. We are only moving one direction now: forward.”

Still, as Juneteenth approaches in the U.S. to commemorate the end of slavery, many states are yet to adopt it as a paid public holiday two years after it was signed into law as a federal holiday. Also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day in the United States, Juneteenth, which is celebrated on June 19 every year, commemorates the freedom of some 250,000 enslaved people in Texas in 1865, nearly 160 years ago.

Although it is not the day slavery legally ended, it is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States. Enslaved African Americans in Texans were freed more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation that established Juneteenth as a Federal holiday. Still, several states are yet to recognize it as a paid holiday, saying that it would be too costly to give state employees another paid day off. Such states also argue that not many people know about it or celebrate it.

Meanwhile, many Americans now know a lot about Juneteenth, per a recent Gallup poll. 17% of those surveyed in the poll said they know “a lot” about Juneteenth, 11% said they know “nothing at all”, 42% said they know “some,” and 29% said “a little bit”. Actually, Juneteenth became well known in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Still, while all 50 states have at some point commemorated or observed Juneteenth, 25 states have yet to adopt Juneteenth as a paid public holiday, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 14, 2023


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