When Virginia declared Juneteenth a state holiday last year, Irvin Greene was determined to launch a celebration in his hometown. Greene’s family roots in Leesburg run deep, and he’s the founder of the Burg Family Reunion, which celebrates the town’s longstanding African American community.
The Burg Family Reunion Juneteenth Celebration is just one of several new local observances of the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. From the solemn to the celebratory, Loudoun will be observing Juneteenth in a range of ways on June 19. The events are open to all, and while each one will have a different vibe, the focus is on freedom: past, present and future.
“We need to get out and start doing things for ourselves because if we don’t, no one’s going to do it for us,” Greene said. “We need to bring awareness so that everyone understands what Juneteenth is all about.”
Greene’s own family history in and around Leesburg goes back for centuries through his paternal grandmother’s family the Murrays, descendants of the enslaved community at Oatlands. Family members lived in the downtown neighborhood south of Loudoun Street known as Black Bottom. In the ’70s, many families moved into Loudoun’s first subsidized housing complex, then known as Loudoun House, where Greene grew up.
Three years ago, Greene and a group of fellow Loudoun County High School grads got the idea for a reunion celebrating Leesburg’s grassroots African American community. The first Burg Family Reunion took place at Douglass Community Center in 2019 with more than 500 guests. A second reunion is planned for this fall. But as Greene watched coverage of the George Floyd murder and related protests last summer, he wanted to do something more. He pushed his organizing committee to add a Juneteenth celebration into the mix. And in typical Irvin Greene style, it’s starting off with a bang.
The inaugural Burg Family Reunion Juneteenth Celebration at Ida Lee Park features a slate of speakers led by Loudoun County Chair Phyllis Randall, spoken word performances, food and other vendors and the iconic Chuck Brown Band, the DC-based R&B and soul group founded by the late go-go music legend Chuck Brown.
“I don’t believe in small,” Greene said with a laugh.
A Reflective Observance in Downtown Leesburg
Pastor Michelle Thomas, founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center and president of the NAACP Loudoun Branch, is a featured speaker at the Ida Lee celebration. But Thomas is also organizing a separate Juneteenth observance that morning in downtown Leesburg, with a focus on getting the day started in a meaningful way.
“Our event is a little bit more reflective,” Thomas said. “It’s one thing to say we celebrate Juneteenth. It’s another to say we take actionable steps towards sustaining the efforts of freedom.”
The Loudoun Freedom Center, in partnership with the NAACP, is organizing a Juneteenth march and celebration that kicks off at the Loudoun County Courthouse at 9:30 a.m. with a march to the Orion Anderson Lynching Memorial on Harrison St. for a ceremony and reception. The memorial commemorates the life of a black teenager, Orion Anderson, who was lynched in Leesburg in 1889.
“We’ll be walking shoulder to shoulder,” Thomas said of the event, which welcomes community leaders and Loudoun residents from all walks of life. The event also spotlights several big announcements, including a planned expansion of the land deeded to the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont and the official unveiling of a reflective space at the Orion Anderson Lynching Memorial built by Eagle Scout Israfeel Martinez Jaka.
For Thomas, the event is about commemorating Juneteenth but also affirming an ongoing commitment to social justice.
“If we don’t continue to fight for justice, if we don’t continue to remind ourselves of our dark past, we’ll never be able to walk into our bright future with the certainty of not returning to that grave behavior,” Thomas said. “I love dancing, I love singing, I love having a good time but at the end of the day, there must be a resounding commitment to freedom or we will realize that freedom can be fleeting.”
National Juneteenth Efforts Go Local at Claude Moore Park
The Juneteenth holiday celebrates the arrival of U.S. Colored Troops in Galveston, TX, on June 19, 1865, when thousands of African Americans in that city learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, signed more than two years earlier.
“Juneteenth is the realization of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment. When they saw those Black troops show up in Galveston, that’s what caused the celebration,” said Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation and a Sterling resident.
But Juneteenth actually celebrates a series of events, from 1862 well into the 20th century, Williams said. And that history is part of the organization’s Juneteenth 101 educational programming. NJOF was launched in 1994 and has been pushing for nearly three decades to get the holiday recognized at the state and national level. Juneteenth is now recognized as a holiday or observance in more than 40 states, and the organization continues to push the US Congress for recognition as a federal holiday.
As president of the national foundation, Williams has been heavily involved with huge celebrations in D.C. and around the country for years. This year, it was time to organize an observance in his own backyard.
“I’ve done a lot of legwork [for NJOF], but I really ignored home,” Williams said. “In Virginia really we didn’t have a big footprint. … This year I decided I have to do something at home.”
Williams put together a local Juneteenth committee under the auspices of NJOF to create a Loudoun-based event designed with both celebration and education in mind. Juneteenth Loudoun takes place Saturday, June 19 at Claude Moore Park in Sterling. The event starts at 11 a.m. with a prayer at Belmont Country Club followed by a car caravan to Claude Moore Park, where the celebration takes place from noon to 7 p.m. The afternoon includes a flag-raising by Buffalo Soldiers, poetry, speakers and music throughout the day, including gospel from Rev. Isaac Howard and the Howard Harmonizers, blues from Johnny Rawls and jazz and funk from Funkativity. The event also includes educational programming and other activities for kids.
The organizers of the three Loudoun events are in contact, and Williams said he’s hopeful they can join forces in the future. But for now, raising awareness in separate events will work.
“None are free until all are free-that’s the point we want to get to everybody,” WIlliams said. “The national impact of Juneteenth is undeniable, and we have to acknowledge that.”
Loudoun Freedom Center’s Juneteenth Celebration kicks off Saturday, June 19 at 9:30 a.m. at the Loudoun County Courthouse, and participants will walk to the Orion Anderson Lynching Memorial at the corner of Harrison St. and the W&OD Trail for a ceremony and reception from 10 to 11:45 a.m. For more information, go to facebook.com/loudounfreedomfoundation
The Burg Family Reunion Juneteenth Celebration takes place Saturday, June 19 from noon to 6 p.m. at Ida Lee Park. For more information, go to thebfrc.com/juneteenth-celebration.
Juneteenth Loudoun takes place Saturday, June 19 from noon to 7 p.m. at Claude Moore Park and kicks off at 11 a.m. with a car caravan from Belmont Country Club. For more information, go to juneteenthloudoun.org. For information on the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, including its Juneteenth 101 crash course on the holiday, go to njof.org.