Why the celebration of Juneteenth Day has such a strong history in Milwaukee

The celebration of Juneteenth Day, one of the state’s oldest African-American events, will once again take place on North King Drive in Milwaukee on a day highlighting black culture and the opening of the season summer festivals with music, food, contests, vendors and a parade.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Army soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that all slaves were free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is a cultural celebration focusing on the education and achievements of African Americans.

Juneteenth is the oldest commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, and the Milwaukee celebration is one of the oldest in the country. It started in 1971.

RELATED: The celebration of Juneteenth Day in Milwaukee is back. He will resume in person this year.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted organizers to hold a virtual version of the annual celebration, but in May 2021, Northcott Neighborhood House announced The June Day festivities will return on June 19. Vendors and parade participants must agree to guidelines from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, including wearing masks.

This year’s event will be held on King Drive from downtown to Ring Streets, and will have fewer vendors due to the pandemic.

This year’s event comes after protests and social justice marches across the country over the past year, including protests against police brutality by groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Here’s an explanation of Juneteenth in Milwaukee and how it became today’s celebration:

Juneteenth Day commemorates the end of slavery

Juneteenth Day is held on June 19 of each year, commemorating the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed the last remaining slaves in the South that the Civil War was over and that ‘they were free. It was two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Celebrations of the historic event in parts of the South began soon after, died out in the early 1900s due to economic and cultural forces, and saw a revival in the late 1960s.

Milwaukee was one of the first cities in the north to celebrate Juneteenth

In Milwaukee, public Juneteenth Day festivities were first held in 1971, making it one of the first cities in the North to hold celebrations to commemorate emancipation.

Since then, Milwaukee has hosted large and vibrant annual celebrations every year, hosted by Northcott Neighborhood House, a community center in the Harambee neighborhood of Milwaukee.

According to articles published in the Milwaukee Journal in 1976 and 1988, the annual celebration began in 1971 when Margaret Rogers, then a Northcott staff member, told others how much she enjoyed a June Day celebration in Georgia when she was there to visit her grandparents. Based on Rogers’ experience, Northcott decided to start a similar tradition in Milwaukee – led in its early days by festival executive director Marvin Hannah and coordinator Jan Kemp-Cole – and the festival quickly became the opening. unofficial summer.

“Back then, businesses were leaving the neighborhood, people were leaving the community,” said MacArthur Weddle, long-time retired Northcott director and decades-long driving force behind the festival, told Journal Sentinel in 2019. “Northcott thought a Juneteenth Day celebration in Milwaukee would be a good way to start bringing them back.”

2000: Crowds take advantage of the beautiful weather at the June Day celebration in Milwaukee.

Juneteenth celebrations in Milwaukee have grown and changed over the years

The celebration of Milwaukee has grown in number over the years. In 1972, the Milwaukee Journal reported about 3,000 attendees at the Juneteenth festival. This number rose to 100,000 in 1977 and dropped to between 160,000 and 170,000 in 1994.

The celebration has also evolved over time. Typically, it features a street market and a parade.

“I just think Milwaukee takes the celebration a lot more seriously than [other cities]Said Clayborn Benson, founder and executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

“They have put everything in place, from the vendors to the food that is served. The old and the old go out during the day, the politicians go out shaking hands, and the young people go out at noon and (in the) late afternoon.

Juneteenth has increasingly become the most important holiday for African Americans, said Rob Smith, professor and historian at Marquette University.

While Juneteenth’s importance may have fluctuated over the years, today there is a sustained power that connects African Americans across the country – rich and poor, he said.

“This is by no means Hallmark branded vacations. Juneteenth is an oral tradition like no other that is shared across generations, and it shows how, despite what some say, black people have not given up on who we are, ”he said. “We have not given up hope in American democracy. It means that we are full citizens of this country.

Milwaukee still celebrates the 19th

While other cities have the June 19 celebrations on the weekend closest to the holidays, Milwaukee celebrates the 19th of every year, regardless of the day of the week, Benson said.

“It happens during the day,” he said. “Just as we celebrate July 4 on July 4, we celebrate June 19 on June 19. … Do we want to do it on weekends? Some people do. We don’t.

According to a Congress Research Service Fact Sheet 2020, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a public holiday or official celebration of the state. Texas was the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday, in 1980. Wisconsin’s recognition of the day came in 2009.

In 2020, June 19 has become a floating holiday for Milwaukee County Employees to honor and celebrate the lives of black people and attend the Juneteenth Day celebrations in Milwaukee.

RELATED:“I made Juneteenth very famous”: Trump takes credit for vacation celebrating emancipation proclamation

RELATED: Make Juneteenth a national holiday for the American dream of freedom and justice for all

Juneteenth has been a platform for social causes

The Juneteenth celebrations were also a way to raise issues of relevance to Milwaukee’s black community. Politicians attend the event regularly, and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP used the festival to register voters in 1982.

In 1987, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that a cohort of 200 to 300 people of protesters, led by Alds. Michael R. McGee and Paul A. Henningson and County Supervisor Terrance L. Pitts marched through the city streets – from the Juneteenth festivities – to lobby for the creation of 15,000 to 25,000 jobs for the Black Milwaukeeans.

Three years later, on June 17, the Sentinel reported that McGee led another group of about 200 protesters to the Journal Communications building, where they complained about the Journal’s coverage of issues facing the black communities.

In 2020, Juneteenth Day occurred during nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism against black Americans, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer pinched the neck of Floyd with his knee for over eight minutes.

“This is a serious moment in our history and in our time,” Benson said at the time. “People say we want equality, and what else is Juneteenth day talking about besides equality?”

What’s happening at Milwaukee’s Juneteenth 2021

This year’s celebration will begin with the coronation of Miss Juneteenth and Little Miss Juneteenth Day 2021 as well as a Mister Juneteenth and Mister Juneteenth Day Jr. 2021.

Children can qualify for a chance to win a scholarship of up to $ 1,500 by writing an essay.

Boys and girls aged 7 to 13 are asked to write 100 words on the theme “Why am I celebrating June Day?” Children aged 14-18 will compete with 250 word essays answering the question, “How can I maximize the opportunities that have been presented to me today because of those who sacrificed themselves before me?” »To register, go to jammin983.com/juneteenthpageant.

Other highlights will include the parade, dozens of vendor booths, which will focus on health and social justice; and black pride items such as shirts, flags and jewelry. There will also be music, dancing and lots of ethnic food.

Vendors and parade attendees can register for the event on a first come, first served basis by contacting Northcott at 2460 N. 6th St. Call (414) 372-3770. The office hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday.

James E. Causey, editor of Journal Sentinel, and Asha Prihar, former intern with Journal Sentinel, contributed to this article.


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