The paved walkways and courtyard surrounding the North Carolina State Capitol were adorned with bright streaks of chalk on Saturday, as the state celebrated the first officially recognized Juneteenth Day federal holiday.
People attending the party joined the event organizers to pen the names and color in the portraits of African-American men and women whose lives intersected with North Carolina and its Capitol building.
Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday on Thursday, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-American people. The U.S. House and Senate approved the holiday this week, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on Thursday. Because the 19th fell on a Saturday, the country’s first federally recognized Juneteenth Day was observed on Friday..
Kiara Sanders, a Raleigh native and the artist who drew the chalk portraits, said she felt Juneteenth should have received official recognition sooner.
But she hoped the day’s event and her art would help “move Juneteenth forward.”
“When someone sees this face, then there’s the question ‘Who is this?’” she said as she drew Abraham Galloway, a former slave, union spy and N.C. state senator. “It definitely starts a conversation, starts a journey, of who these people are, and then the realization that they shouldn’t just be left in the past.”
‘A holiday can inspire more.’
Terra Schramm, the site administrator for the Capitol building, said she was excited to see the names being written on the Capitol grounds.
“These names, these are people who physically built the building,” she said. “They worked here and they made it what it is.”
Schramm said many of the names came from an 1834 construction report that listed those who helped construct the building, as well as the names of early Black legislators.
“I hope people feel a connection to the building,” she said of those who came to participate in the event. “I hope they feel that their history is valued and remembered.”
Michelle Lanier, the director of the N.C. Division of State Historic Sites, said she was moved to see Juneteenth Day recognized by the federal government.
Lanier said she is a “keeper of memory,” both as a historian and as a descendant of slaves.
“It feels like a sacred trust to commemorate the lives of people who lived in bondage, maybe people who didn’t see legal freedom,” she said. “The pursuit of freedom is, to me, a daily work, and we as public historians have a place in that journey.”
Lanier said Juneteenth is part of what she calls “true inclusion,” or a history that recognizes all people.
“This is work that can usher in a kind of healing and wholeness around how we see North Carolina history,” she said.
But Lanier added that she hopes Juneteenth will have an impact beyond just the day.
“The symbolism of a holiday can inspire more,” she said. “More work around true equity, true justice, true freedom.”
Community members celebrate Juneteenth
Antonio Williams, a 55-year-old Raleigh resident, said he was glad to see the contributions of formerly enslaved people recognized.
“It always meant something to us, prior to this,” he said. “But this makes it even more special”
As he spoke, his wife, Mieko, etched letters in chalk. Williams said they wanted to acknowledge those whose labor had helped build the Capitol.
Black people have “contributed tremendously, but (that) hasn’t been recognized,” he said. “There’s a lot of good there.”
Joe Beatty, a 42-year-old Wake-Forest resident, watched as his 9- and 3-year-old kids wrote names on the pavement.
“I want my kids to learn about the full scope of our history, including slavery,” he said. “And here’s an opportunity to learn not just about slavery, but about emancipation, about freedom.”
Ayana Jarvis, a 26-year-old artist and Raleigh resident, sat while she colored in a portrait of Anna Julia Cooper.
Cooper, who was born into slavery, became one of the most prominent scholars in the country and one of few Black women at the time to receive a doctoral degree.
“Representation does really matter,” Jarvis said. “Not much celebrates the actual history that has happened in America — especially the history of the emancipation of African slaves.”
Jarvis added that she hopes there will be more events like the Juneteenth celebration in the future.
“Even me, I don’t even know about some of these people,” she said. “It’s really not talked about much, especially in history class.”
“Juneteenth is a reminder of how many times that people like Anna Julia Cooper were not recognized in the powerful stories of North Carolina,” Lanier said. “I love that Juneteenth can help us to rectify that neglect, and to feel inspired by their lives.”
At Dix Park a short while later, over 100 people gathered for another Juneteenth Day celebration.
“Happy Juneteenth, everybody,” Gov. Roy Cooper said to the crowd. “What a wonderful day!”
Cooper praised the generations of abolitionists and civil rights leaders who fought for racial equality in the U.S.
“It is a day today to accept the joy of how far we have come,” he said. “And to accept the challenge of how far we still have to go for racial equality in this state and in this country.”