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The Roots of Juneteenth

Milwaukee’s Black Independence Celebration

Jun. 17, 2008
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Although the Emancipation Proclamation called for the liberation of confederate slaves, its effects weren’t immediate. The final slaves in Texas didn’t learn of their freedom until June 19, 1865, a full year and a half after the emancipation took effect, when the Union army rode into Galveston to enforce Abraham Lincoln’s executive order.

The anniversary of June 19, or Juneteenth, has been sporadically celebrated in the south as a black independence day ever since, but the tradition never had a presence in the northern states before Margaret Hennsingsen brought it to Milwaukee in the early 1970s.

Hennsingsen recalled that at the time Third Street, the thoroughfare now known as Martin Luther King Drive, was in disarray. Its reputation for crime was scarring away visitors, and businesses were closing, leaving behind boarded up storefronts. A community organization called Northcott Neighborhood House sought ways to bring traffic and positive attention to the troubled, predominantly black area, so Hennsington suggested organizing a street festival modeled after the Juneteenth celebrations she had only heard about from her great grandmother in Georgia.

What would become Milwaukee’s annual Juneteenth celebration began as a modest affair, a two-block social offering little in the way of historical education or organized entertainment. This quickly changed in subsequent years as the organizers, realizing the opportunity to showcase black artists, added drummers, poets and dancers, as well as booths for community groups.

“There was a lot of black pride rising at the time,” Hennsington says. “The riots had just occurred and there was so much civil unrest, and people were saying that it was time we took charge of our own lives. So the festival was easy to get going, because there were so many people with this pride they needed to express.”

The event grew, expanding an additional two city blocks while attracting tens of thousands of attendees and national attention from other northern cities that studied Milwaukee as a model for their own Juneteenth events.

Hennsington recalls one year in particular that put Milwaukee’s celebration on the map.

“We had the original Emancipation Proclamation on display,” she beams. “The Emancipation Proclamation—I still can’t say that without being overwhelmed.”

Around the country, Juneteenth celebrations are more widespread than ever. Over a dozen states of have declared June 19 a holiday, including Texas and California, and a national Juneteenth organization lobbies to make the day a federal holiday. Wisconsin does not recognize June 19 as a holiday, but Milwaukee’s celebration is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the country.

This year’s celebration will take place between WestCenter and West Burleigh on Martin Luther King Drive on Thursday, June 19 from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and will feature music, a parade, shopping and soul food. Recent years have featured music from soul legends like The Delfonics and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. This year’s headliner is the R&B ensemble Silk.

Here is the main-stage line-up:

10:45am-11am Without A Word Mime Troupe

11am-11:30am Penny Smith

11:30am-11:45am Vertical Essence Dance Company

Noon-12:45pm Opening Ceremonies

1pm-2pm Ronald McDonald

2pm-2:45pm Apex / Remedy

2:45pm-3pm Jammin’ 98.3 Music

3pm-3:30pm Running Rebels

3:30pm-3:45pm Milwaukee Boppers Dance Company

3:45pm-4:15pm Gerome Durham

4:15pm-4:45pm G. Womack

4:45pm-5:15pm J. Vocal

5:15pm-6pm Silk


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