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Juneteenth: A Festival for Freedom

by Peter Reese

When did slavery end in America? Did Abraham Lincoln, by swift stroke of Emancipation Proclaiming pen on January 1, 1863, suddenly free millions of American men, women, and children from race-based bondage? The truth is, it took two and a half more years of fighting and thousands of deaths before Major General Gordon Granger landed with his Union troops in Galveston, Texas, and brought the news of the end of the Confederacy. June 19, 1865, or Juneteenth, is the day African Americans nationwide celebrate the freeing of the last of their ancestors who, by their uncompensated labor and ideas, brought liberty and great wealth to the Constitutional founding fathers. Juneteenth is a big celebration in Milwaukee. Each year 70,000 to 100,000 people attend the festival on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, which is blocked off from Center to Burleigh Streets. Almost one hundred vendors selling everything from African art to barbecued ribs crowd both sides of the street and peddle their wares to a crowd ranging in age from 0 to 100. How Juneteenth came about In the decades following the Civil War, Juneteenth was celebrated throughout the country in rural areas and on church grounds, due to resistance from white landowners and others to the celebration being held in public places. Over time, however, workers were allowed the day off and the festival grew. The celebration of June 19th declined during the first half of the 1900’s. Textbooks in the growing public school system emphasized the Emancipation Proclamation as the end of slavery, and traditional home-based education became less possible and less valued as more and more and more people moved to urban areas to find work during the Great Depression. Along with the two world wars came a rise in patriotism that emphasized the independence won on July 4, 1776, rather than on June 19, 1865. Nationwide, the resurgence of Juneteenth celebrations began during the Civil Rights Movement. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy in 1968 addressed the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. and participants returned to their homes and initiated festivities in those cities. Juneteenth in Milwaukee Milwaukee’s celebration, one of the largest in America, began, according to celebration organizer Mac Weddle, after an employee of the Northcott Neighborhood House returned from a 1971 trip to Georgia with news about Juneteenth ceremonies being held there. This year, the Northcott Neighborhood House, a multi-purpose community center located at 2460 N. 6th St., is presenting the 31st annual Juneteenth Day Celebration. Events include the 10th Annual Ms. Juneteenth Day Pageant held at 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 15, at the Martin Luther King Center at 1531 West Vliet St. (admission $10.00); the Juneteenth Day Parade starting at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 19, at North 19th and West Atkinson Ave. and proceeding to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Burleigh; and the festival itself running from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the Opening Ceremony at Noon. Speakers will include: Governor Scott McCallum, Mayor John Norquist, and newly elected County Executive Scott Walker, among others. National recording artist Howard Hewitt and others will entertain from two stages. Juneteenth, always a big day for promoting education and advancement, offers a job fair and a health fair. A longtime Milwaukeean, who no longer attends the celebration due to the size of the crowds but celebrates Juneteenth in his own way, stated, “The best thing about June 19, 1865, is that we now have the freedom to choose where we do and do not want to go.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 5 – June 2002