DAHLGREN, Va. –
When William Jones learned that Juneteenth National Independence Day was becoming a federal holiday in 2021, there was a sense of pride.
“I remember feeling the same feeling I felt when they elected the first African American President [Barack Obama],” Jones said. “I was just beside myself to realize that the nation was going to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. I was excited then. I’m excited now about it.”
Jones is the Virginia Black History Month Association president. He was one of three panelists who attended the first Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) Juneteenth commemoration June 30 at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren Campus.
Panel members Dr. Paula Royster and Eunice Haigler joined Jones in a discussion on the significance of the first newly instituted national holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Royster is the president and CEO of the Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc.
Haigler is the founder and president of the Color of History Coalition and a past liaison for former Del. Josh Cole who represented the 28th District in Virginia from 2020-22.
The forum was moderated by Dr. Sherry Springs, NSWCDD’s African American/Black Employment Special Emphasis Program Manager.
“There were some really powerful nuggets that were shared today,” said Tamara Jackson, Deputy Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion Office at NSWCDD. “I just want to make sure that we take what we learned, even just one nugget, one tool, one piece and share it with someone.”
Jackson stressed that the reason Juneteenth exists is because of a lack of communication. News that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery in 1863 did not reach Galveston, Texas until two and a half years later on June 19, 1865.
“The message didn’t get carried forward,” Jackson said. “So, what can we do to make sure we carry that message forward?”
The one-hour event included questions from Springs and inquiries from the audience.
Marcella Bushrod, NSWCDD’s Affirmative Employment and Diversity and Inclusion Program Manager, said her office provides several services to the workforce and education is one of the most valuable resources. She said one of the reasons for the commemoration is that one year after it was named a national holiday, people are still questioning the purpose of the celebration.
“That is why it was important for us to make our first commemoration of Juneteenth an educational and inspiring experience for the workforce,” Bushrod said. “So that we all can understand the reason for the celebration, which is our goal for every commemoration that we host.”
The three panelists stressed education, as well.
They explained the history of Juneteenth, what it means to them and how they go about spreading the message to community members.
“It is significant because it compels every American to acknowledge its past,” Royster said. “You cannot know or say Juneteenth and not acknowledge everything that led up to it. That is why it’s important.”
Haigler said learning about Juneteenth was enlightening, helps her connect the dots of her family’s past and gives future generations a foundation.
“I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Haigler said. “They won’t have to grow up like I did, not knowing that they really are somebody, that they’re valuable and they really can make valuable contributions to society.”
At the end of the ceremony, NSWCDD Chief of Staff Terri Gray presented each speaker with a certificate of appreciation. Afterwards, panelists stayed to answer more questions from NSWCDD employees.
“The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division was deeply honored to have you as our guest keynote speaker for the national Juneteenth celebration on June 30, 2022,” said Gray, reading the certificate. “Your vast knowledge, grasp of Juneteenth heritage and historical expertise proved the perfect combination for this year’s event.”