On a sunny Thursday afternoon, descendants of people enslaved in Charlottesville sang, danced and celebrated the liberation of their ancestors at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the University of Virginia Grounds.
The event was hosted by Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVa, an organization of people who have ancestors who were enslaved at the university. The descendants were joined by friends and supporters eager to celebrate the day.
“Today is March 3, the day of our emancipation, Charlottesville’s emancipation … Today we celebrate our own Juneteenth,” said DeTeasa Gathers, co-chair of Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVa.
On March 3, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Charlottesville to share the news that the Civil War was over and that enslaved people were emancipated. The date wasn’t officially recognized in the city until 2017, when City Council signed a proclamation officially recognizing the date as a citywide holiday. Every year since, March 3 has been celebrated as Liberation and Freedom Day in Charlottesville.
At Thursday’s event, Charlottesville Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade read City Council’s Liberation and Freedom Day resolution.
“This is a holiday for the city of Charlottesville. If you go to City Hall, the doors will be closed. We want to honor this day,” Wade said.
The celebration opened with an interactive drum call and West African dance performance by the Chihamba Dance Troupe. Audience members were invited to participate in group dances and call-and-response music, celebrating cultures that the enslaved were forced to hide for decades.
As church bells chimed at noon, descendants and guests observed a moment of silence for all those who were enslaved.
“We acknowledge and pay respect to the enslaved and free Black laborers who built UVa, and their descendants. It is from the profits of their stolen labor, knowledge and lives and the dispossession of indigenous land upon which the university and this area have been developed,” said Carolyn Mitchell Dillard, a member of Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVa.
The keynote presentation was given by performer, activist and music historian Calvin Earl, who performed African American spirituals and shared their history. Earl was instrumental in a successful campaign to have Congress recognize African American spirituals as a National Treasure. He also was the recipient of a Presidential Proclamation from former President George W. Bush for his contributions to educating the public about African American spirituals.
“Spirituals to me feel like they’re love songs. They really hit my soul. Spirituals don’t care how old you are, what culture or race you are, or what gender you are, or where you came from,” Earl said. “As human beings we all know what pain is, what injustice is, what suffering is, and what cruelty is. The spirituals helped the slaves to find courage and strength to overcome obstacles with resilience and determination, and gave them comfort and peace.”
Earl performed several well-known spirituals, such as “Wade in the Water” and “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” and shared their lesser-known backgrounds. Earl said that many spirituals were purposely written to have a soothing and calming effect that would not agitate or draw the attention of slave owners. Others were written with riveting beats that would distract the average listener from the meaningful lyrics that expressed a yearning for liberation.
“[The song] is saying ‘Hold on. Keep your hands on the plow because the plow also means freedom. Keep the hope alive that we will get through this day. We will get through this,’” Earl said.
Earl said that everyone can feel connection to the same spirituals that comforted enslaved people, and that music is a common thread that brings all people together. He is a descendant of enslaved laborers himself.
“We’ll be forever indebted to the enslaved African people in our country for creative and original music,” Earl said.