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Juneteenth: A History

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 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 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festival on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. 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 19 declined during the first half of the 1900’s. Textbooks emphasized the Emancipation Proclamation as the end of slavery, and a rise in patriotism emphasized Independence Day, July 4, 1776, rather than 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 many participants returned to their homes and initiated festivities in those cities. Juneteenth in Milwaukee Milwaukee’s celebration, one of the largest in America, began after an employee of the Northcott Neighborhood House returned from a 1971 trip to Georgia with news about Juneteenth ceremonies there. This year, the Northcott Neighborhood House, a multi-purpose community center at 2460 N. 6th St., presents the 32nd annual Juneteenth Day Celebration. Events include the 11th Annual Ms. Juneteenth Day Pageant held at 6 p.m., Saturday, June 14, at the Martin Luther King Center, 1531 West Vliet St. (admission $10); the Juneteenth Day Parade, 10 a.m., Thursday, June 19, at North 19th and West Atkinson Ave. and proceeding to Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Burleigh; and the festival itself, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the Opening Ceremony at Noon. Speakers will include Mayor John Norquist and Michael Holt from the Community Journal, who is grand marshall this year. National recording artists Otis Clay and Angela Bofill will entertain from two stages. Juneteenth, always a big day for promoting education and advancement, also offers a job fair and a health fair. A version of this article ran in last year’s Riverwest Currents. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 6 – June 2003
by Peter Reese