Milwaukee's Juneteenth Tradition

Jun. 17, 2009
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I ran a variation of this story last year, but judging by how many people still don't know what Juneteenth is, I figured it's worth rerunning. Milwaukee's Juneteenth celebration is unlike any other in the country; it's one of those local traditions that's taken on a life of its own over the years:
Although the Emancipation Proclamation called for the liberation of confederate slaves, its effects werent immediate. The final slaves in Texas didnt 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 Lincolns 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 Milwaukees 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 Milwaukees celebration on the map.

We had the original Emancipation Proclamation on display, she beams. The Emancipation ProclamationI still cant 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 Milwaukees celebration is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the country.

Here's this year's schedule, courtesy of the organizers:
10:00-Noon            Jammin Music

Noon-12:45pm      Opening Ceremonies

1:00-1:15pm Believers Beyond the Stars (10+ kids, 2 soloists)

1:15-1:30pm Angels Above the Rainbow Dance Troupe

1:30-1:45pm Vertical Essence Dance Company

1:45-2:00pm Remidy

2:00-2:15pm Running Rebels

2:15-2:30pm Terry Harris, Jr.

2:30-2:45pm Sajida

2:45pm-3:00pm   Cincere

3:00-3:30pm David Guitar Watson (with guitar)

3:30-4:00pm Chris Pipkins (with sax)

4:00-4:30pm J. Vocal

4:30-4:45pm G. Womack (with keyboard)

4:45pm-5:15pm      TC2

5:15pm-6:00pm      Syleena Johnson


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