Stafford County woman indirectly helped shape Juneteenth into state holiday

Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 11:32 PM EDT
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STAFFORD, Va. (WWBT) - A major move from the U.S Senate Tuesday, which voted to make June 19 a federal holiday. The date is also known as Juneteenth and it celebrates the emancipation of those who were enslaved in the United States but never knew they were free.

The bill passed unanimously. It now makes its way to the House before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk - where he’s expected to sign it into law.

Many cities and towns in Central Virginia are planning major celebrations for Juneteenth. This year is the first year the Commonwealth will observe it under state law recognizing it as an official state holiday. A Stafford County woman played a big role in helping to make it happen.

“I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, but I went to an all-black school and I actually didn’t know I was Black. I didn’t know there was a difference,” 70-year-old Eunice Haigler said.

That’s because she was never taught to see race. As she grew older, life would teach some unexpected lessons, like when she applied for a job after college.

“She said ‘you have too much experience and education for a Black woman. You need to curtail your resume.’ I’m like ‘no, I worked hard for this. I worked went to school while raising four children. I’m not going to do that’…Because I was never taught racism, I didn’t recognize it,” she explained.

It forced her to dig deeper into her history. She learned about Juneteenth, the day slaves realized they were free back in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I’m thinking when they learned that they were free, what did they do? Did they tear up stuff? Did they get mad? They celebrated and that just made me feel so good. So every year when Juneteenth comes around, this is a time for celebration. It’s a time for unity,” Haigler continued. A lesson she never learned in grade school. “I know I wasn’t taught…I never understood the history of it, the importance of it.”

That’s why she led the way in creating a Juneteenth celebration in Fredericksburg before many others were even talking about it. Back in 2015, she invited now Delegate Joshua Cole to sing at the event, never knowing he’d one day be a state lawmaker.

“I was working on a play with a friend of hers and he was like ‘This lady I know does a Juneteenth event every year,’ and I was like ‘a who? what event?’ because I had never heard of it,” Del. Josh Cole said. It stuck with him, especially after he made it to the State Capitol. “One of the first bills we put in when I got in, because of her, was making Juneteenth a state holiday.”

He and other lawmakers saw it through. Cole credits the dedicated local organizer for helping him learn what he never knew.

“I didn’t know I had a history…I don’t want my kids, my grandkids, I have grand kids and great-grandchildren, I want them to know their history,” Haigler said.

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