‘We Must Push Back against Efforts to Take Us Backward’

‘We Must Push Back against Efforts to Take Us Backward’

Fairfax City holds its second annual Juneteenth Celebration.

Catherine Read presenting a plaque to Jeffrey Johnson.

Catherine Read presenting a plaque to Jeffrey Johnson.

Fairfax City’s second annual Juneteenth Celebration was held Saturday, June 15, in Old Town Square. And its overall message was that, despite the great strides Black people in this country have made – and contrary to the Pledge of Allegiance – there still isn’t “liberty and justice for all.”

Indeed, in his opening invocation, the Rev. Nelson Sneed said, “God, we thank You for how far we have come as a nation. And even as we bow, we acknowledge our need for You to guide us in the continual struggle for true, racial equity. 

“Let us affirm one another, especially those who may think or look different than ourselves. Bless us now with Your presence as we celebrate, reflect and remember what matters most – that we are one humanity, all created in Your image, for Your glory.”

The first speaker, Fairfax Mayor Catherine Read, honored Mount Calvary Baptist Church. Organized in 1870 by free and formerly enslaved African Americans, it was the foundation of the City’s Black community. The original church was on the west side of Route 123; and in 1955, work began on construction of a new place of worship at 4325 Chain Bridge Road. 

Its modern, brick sanctuary, built on that same site, dates from 1999, and the Rev. Jeffrey Johnson Sr. is the current pastor. “Inspired by President Biden’s declaration of Juneteenth as a national holiday in 2021, Rev. Johnson and four parishioners approached City staff in January 2023 with plans for a joint City/Mount Calvary Juneteenth celebration,” said Read. That first celebration was at the church, and Saturday’s event followed in the heart of Old Town. 

“Without the 154 years of community created by Mount Calvary Baptist Church, this event would not be possible,” said Read. She then presented Johnson with a plaque in appreciation. Noting this church’s importance to the City and its Black community, she said, “Thank you, Rev. Johnson, for all you and your parishioners have done to keep Juneteenth at the forefront of a celebration important to our City.”

“Juneteenth reminds us that there were individuals who came here as things to be used – not men, nor women, to be respected,” said Johnson. “There have been many atrocities in the experience of African Americans on their road toward the ‘pursuit of happiness’ here in the United States. We’re here to make sure those past atrocities do not revisit us in 2024 and beyond.”

“We’re here because, sometimes, even the highest court of the land holds our journey toward happiness in contempt,” he continued. “We’re here to let the world know we’re proud to be Americans and proud of our heritage in this country. And you’re always welcome to Mount Calvary Baptist Church.”

Next, U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly explained Juneteenth and the tasks still ahead. “On June 19, 1865, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, and had to tell enslaved people they’d been free for two years,” said Connolly. “It was a joyous celebration in Texas for Black Americans who, until that time, had still served in involuntary servitude.

“So we celebrate that liberation; but it’s a sober reminder that the struggle continues. As [abolitionist] Frederick Douglass said, ‘Without struggle, there is no justice.’ That same Texas had some of the strictest Jim Crow laws in America after Reconstruction and resisted the vote for Black Americans for another hundred years, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And even today, hurdles are put in front of people of color to vote.”

Therefore, said Connolly, there’s still work to do – not just in Texas, but throughout America. “We have to remind people what [Juneteenth] stood for and why it’s so important to our identity as a nation. Holding back any American holds back all of us. Preventing anybody from expressing their political will – whether we agree with it or not – diminishes our democracy.”

Sen. Saddam Salim (D-37th) called Juneteenth a time for renewed commitment to justice and equality, plus a symbol of “the triumph of freedom over oppression and the enduring spirit of resilience and hope.” But he noted, too, that “Virginia was a cradle of American democracy, yet also the central hub of slave trade. We’ve begun acknowledging and confronting this legacy. And in 2020, Fairfax made the bold and necessary decision to remove [its] Confederate monuments.

“They’d stood as painful reminders of a past that sought to divide us and perpetuate the injustices of slavery and segregation. Their removals here and across the country signify our collective commitment to a future embracing all Virginians, regardless of race or background. However, every time we make progress, there’s pushback. But we must push back against efforts to take us backward.”

“Fairfax and Northern Virginia have made remarkable strides toward creating a more inclusive and equitable community,” said Salim. “But there’s still much work to be done to ensure that every Virginian has an equal opportunity to thrive. We must continue to address the systemic, racial inequality persisting in our educational and criminal-justice systems and in our economy.”

Del. David Bulova (D-11th) spoke about the Booker T. Washington National Monument near Smith Mountain Lake. “It’s a powerful place with a powerful story,” he said. “It’s where Washington was born into slavery, and the site where he was freed. He went on to have an enormous impact on millions and millions of lives. And the display at the site that struck me most was a marker with the words Washington wrote about the moment he and his family found out they were free.

Quoting from Washington’s book, “Up from Slavery,” Bulova read, “It was a momentous and eventful day to all. My mother leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. This was the moment she had been praying for. There was great rejoicing, thanksgiving and wild scenes of ecstasy.”

“I can’t fathom the relief that must have been felt as slavery was relegated to history – more than a dozen generations after the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia’s shores,” said Bulova. “But Washington knew the struggle for social and economic justice and equality would be hard and long.”  

And since Virginia retrenched into Jim Crow and segregation, said Bulova, he was proud to co-sponsor legislation establishing Juneteenth as a state holiday in 2020 – a year before it became a federal holiday. “Today we celebrate the joy of emancipation and freedom, plus the strength, courage and grace of Black Americans who’ve fought incessantly for their civil liberties.”

George Mason’s David Atkins, an associate pastor in North Carolina, called every African American a miracle. “Our lives are intertwined with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors,” he said. “We’re valuable because of our humanity and because our ancestors declared our worth when they fought for us to live.”

He said Juneteenth observes the beginning of an era that included slavery being abolished, giving Blacks the right to vote and seeing former slaves actually do so for the first time. “It’s a day of joy, liberation, remembrance and celebration,” said Atkins. “It’s a time for communities to come together to honor African American culture, heritage and contributions to society through expressions of music, art, oral presentations, parades and other festivities.

“Let us recommit ourselves to ensuring the right to freedom and equality and building a better future for all. Quoting Malcolm X, ‘You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.’”

Local resident Krysta Jones shared her own family’s history, starting from 1866 when her great-great-grandfather, Ben Jones, was born in Virginia and the General Assembly passed a law legitimizing the marriages of formerly enslaved people. She also said Black people want to hope, dream, work and succeed together with people of all races. “Whoever holds power is critical to freedom,” she said. “Be an ally – speak up for Black voices when we’re not in the room. And next time, make sure we’re there, too.”

Juneteenth Celebration Committee member Amini Bonane then presented Fairfax City’s inaugural Legacy of Freedom Medal to Rev. Johnson. He was honored for promoting the preservation of Black culture and heritage, plus advocating for equality and justice.

Deputy City Manager Valmarie Turner thanked the mayor and City Council for supporting this event, saying, “When we’re able to share together, we grow together and we’re better together.”

In his closing prayer, Sneed thanked God “for every heart encouraged and every mind committed to building a better tomorrow.”