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(re)Reflector 02: A Queen Celebrates Juneteenth and Black Freedom

a woman dressed in African garb standing outside

by Niya Bates and Ms. Maxine Holland

If you’ve attended a Black cultural event in Charlottesville, chances are you’ve seen Ms. Maxine Holland adorned in regal West African prints, with a gele (Nigerian) or duku (Ghanaian) head wrap crowning her head as she danced around the room educating people about Black history and culture. Or, perhaps, you were on the receiving end of a stern word of correction in Ms. Holland’s classroom. As her much younger cousin, and also a former student, I have seen and experienced the full breadth of Cousin Maxine’s zest for life, love for our family, and passion about our history. In every encounter, her voice and distinctive affect fill the corners of each space that she enters. Few people can command a room the way that Ms. Maxine Holland does. She is and has always been royalty within our community – a queen in all respects – and I’m not just saying that because I’m family.

five women pose in skirt suits at homecoming in 1967

Ms. Maxine Holland is crowned Miss Homecoming and poses with her attendants at Jackson P. Burley High School in 1967. The photo is from the high yearbook, Jay Pee Bee.

Born in the unincorporated community of Cobham in northeastern Albemarle County, Ms. Holland came of age during the era of segregation. She attended the three-room Keswick Elementary School and later Rose Hill Elementary School. In 1967, she graduated from Jackson P. Burley High School as part of the last class of graduates before Albemarle County integrated schools. She was also Burley High School’s last homecoming queen. After high school, Ms. Maxine remained at home to help her disabled mother. During that time, she worked a variety of jobs and developed a passion for working in the community. Through her many roles, she engaged community members of all ages and contributed to a diverse and vibrant African American community as church clerk at St. John Baptist Church, a troop leader for Girl Scout Troop #8, a volunteer for Johnson Halfway House, and Campaign Manager for Shirley Chapman, the first African American to seek a position on the Board of Supervisors in Albemarle County in 1970. Ms. Holland  also launched numerous community initiatives including tutoring sessions for children in Cobham in nearby neighborhoods, teaching dance and rhythmic activities to preschoolers, conducting exercise classes for adults, organizing programs to raise awareness of Sickle Cell Anemia, and celebrating Pan-Africa Day (1970).

a teacher supervises students

Ms. Maxine Holland tutoring students at St. John Baptist Church in Cobham, Virginia, 1970

Ms. Holland was accepted to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1972. That academic endeavor did not prevent her, however, from continuing to care for her mother. Every weekend, while in college, she traveled the 139 miles from Hampton to Cobham to relieve her grandmother, Mrs. Elsie Byrd, and other family members that were managing her mother’s care throughout the week. Unfortunately her mother, Susan Holland, made the transition before she graduated.

One year after completing a bachelor of science degree in physical education, she was offered a teaching assistantship at Hampton University. That position helped to pay tuition for a master’s degree in health education. Following graduate school, her journey as a teacher started. She held teaching positions at Kentucky State University, Spelman College, Gideons Elementary School (Atlanta, GA), Yancey Elementary School, Albemarle High School, and Fluvanna County High School. Her experiences in both segregated and integrated communities underscored the central importance of linking teachers, parents, and community in a triangle of advocacy in order to successfully educate a child. She honors Black teachers and their educational strategies that developed generations of successful Black men and women, in spite of segregation. Ms. Holland maintains that the wisdom and strategies of Black educators were lost during the era of integration, which catapulted Black children into settings designed to arrest their cultural, social, and intellectual development. Therefore, at every level of education, she found herself incorporating some of the methods and strategies used by her teachers, especially their classroom management techniques. In addition, she integrated Black history into all subjects. She was more concerned with preparing students to function beyond the classroom with a sense of character and self-sufficiency than training them to get jobs and become consumers. Ms. Holland quips that she could speak at length about Black self-sufficiency, but that’s for another day.

a teacher with a large group of students

Ms. Maxine Holland with Men on a Mission participants in Reverend Dr. Calvin Butt’s Office in Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, 1998

Prior to leaving public education, she founded and directed Men On A Mission, a club designed to help raise the level of consciousness among young African American men. With the help of Diallo Sessoms, Brian Wilson, James Bryant, Greg Davis, and Harold Boyd, Black male youths partook in many cultural and historical experiences, including traveling to some major cities to see how their ancestors had contributed to the overall growth and development of the United States. Accompanied by Ms. Holland and others, the club visited Harlem (NYC), Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma where they toured cultural centers like the Schomburg in Harlem and historic Civil Rights Movement sites like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. As a result of Men on a Mission, Ms. Holland believes the young men were able to move through time and space with a greater sense of competence, confidence, character and courage. She later founded and directed The Shule (shoe-lay) Society, a rites of passage program for young Black women intended to help them navigate the challenges of life while maintaining peace and harmony in their lives. Around the same time, she organized and served as Facilitator of the Family Council at The Cedars Nursing Home, which was a support group for nursing home residents and their families.

After twenty-eight years of teaching, Ms. Holland retired in 2015 but kept her passion for working in the community. She will tell you that her motivation for doing community work is an attempt to continue the tradition & legacy of women who were servant-leaders during segregation and worked tirelessly to help meet the needs of the community. Ms. Holland credits the following women for inspiring her: Mrs. Ann Dickerson, Mrs. Shirley Chapman, and Mrs. Susan Holland (all of the Cobham Community); Mrs. Sally Turner and Mrs. Bernice Mitchell (Cismont Community); Sis Elizabeth Washington (Keswick Community); Mrs. Virginia Carrington and Mrs. Grace Tinsley (Charlottesville). 

In 2000, Mrs. Tamyra Turner organized the first Juneteenth celebration. Ms. Holland was asked to be a presenter. Her presentation was about some of the dances that originated on the plantation like the Cake Walk, Juba, Ring Shout, Jig, Buck and Wing and demonstrated how movements in those dances mimic dances that evolved in the 1950s and 1960s. Starting in 2001, she helped Mrs. Turner plan and organize the Juneteenth celebrations. From 2001-2015, the celebrations were held on the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College. Then, in 2016, the celebration moved to the African American Heritage Center in collaboration with Dr. Andrea Douglas.

four women dressed in traditional West African garb

Ms. Maxine Holland (2nd from left) during a reenactment of village life in Togo, Ghana, and Nigeria during the 2003 Juneteenth program at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC)

Juneteenth is among the oldest celebrations of freedom in this country. The celebration originated in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1866, and its name is derived from blending June and nineteenth – the date in 1865 that U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to read a proclamation announcing the end of the Civil War and the freedom of those who remained enslaved. The celebration grew out of the euphoria surrounding the transition from slavery to freedom. It also represents the joy of freedom and the chance for a new beginning. As a historical note: slavery did not end for all enslaved people at the same time because the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, issued by then President Abraham Lincoln, was not recognized in the confederate states that had seceded from the Union. Thus, the American Civil War brought about freedom for nearly four million people. Depending on what state you’re in, Juneteenth might alternatively be known as Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day or Freedom Day. In Charlottesville, we celebrate Liberation and Freedom Day on March 3rd. Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021.

Juneteenth celebrations throughout the country typically feature song and dance, parades, historical demonstrations, and ceremonies honoring Black veterans. Drawing from the Black power and Pan-African movements, Juneteenth celebrations feature the colors red, green, black, and blue prominently. This includes the food! Favored Juneteenth foods include red velvet cakes, red punch, tea cakes, sugar cookies, soul food, barbeque, and foods representing luck and abundance in Black culture, for example greens and black eyed peas. All of these festive elements have been part of our local Juneteenth celebrations over the years.

a woman dances with drummers in the background

A woman dances to African drumming during the 2019 Juneteenth event at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

Over the years, Ms. Maxine Holland has been adamant about maintaining the historical significance and integrity of Juneteenth. She ensured that the presenters, activities, and overall content were relatable and relevant. Last year’s celebration was among the best. It included a parade with over 300 participants, lots of dancing, singing, socializing and Black joy. Celebrating life in a nation seemingly dedicated to Black suffering and death helps to make Juneteenth so very special because not only do we celebrate freedom, but also Black joy in the process.

After 20 years of planning and organizing, Ms. Holland “passed the baton” to the next generation. She encourages Black families to start a tradition of celebrating Juneteenth – host a cookout, play baseball games, share family history– and encourages us not to rely on an outside source to plan the celebration. By doing those things, she hopes Black communities can resist the commercialization and appropriation of Juneteenth by other audiences.

a woman speaks at a podium to a youth

Ms. Maxine Holland (center) with Sgt. Major Keyana Washington (right) during the Veterans Day celebration in 2022.

While there are many more reasons to give this queen her flowers, her work to raise awareness of and to celebrate Black culture locally remain paramount. In 2015, Ms. Holland became co-founder of the Veterans Committee of Central Virginia. Its Mission is to more fully contextualize and honor through education the often overlooked stories of Black military service in the United States Armed Forces, past and present. Each year, the group hosts a commemoration of the African American military experience. This year will mark its ninth year. While Ms. Holland is leaning into her well earned retirement, she plans to continue as executive director of the Veterans Committee.

Ms. Maxine Holland believes that many of the problems that plague the Black community can be countered by educators and leaders who have a clear sense of history, culture, identity, group unity and self-determination. She further encourages Black folks to study our history. Paraphrasing from Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History”, Ms. Holland writes, “if a people had no recorded history, its achievements would be forgotten or ignored and eventually claimed by others.” She continues, “If you destroy the history, you destroy the evidence. Don’t let that happen.”

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