By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The document declared that enslaved people throughout most of the country would now be free people. It wasn’t until three years later on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas bringing news of the Emancipation Proclamation and declaring the end of the Civil War.
The ensuing jubilation and celebration became what is now known as Juneteenth Day and it is celebrated to this day in cities and households throughout the country.
Milwaukee is one of the few cities that has a city-wide Juneteenth Day celebration. Northcott Neighborhood House, 2460 N. 6th St., started the Juneteenth Day celebration 50 years ago, when Margaret Henningsen celebrated Juneteenth in Georgia. She brought the idea to Milwaukee, Tony Kearney, executive director of Northcott Neighborhood House, said.
“We’ve come a long way since 1971, which in reality highlights the struggle of African American people,” Kearney said. “[The year] 1865 didn’t free us, there was a document, the Emancipation Proclamation, but it took years to actually gain true freedom. What this 50th anniversary is, is just remembering what really occurred and trying to bring our culture forward and educating people on the struggles of African American people in America.”
Kearney grew up around Northcott Neighborhood House. He looked forward to the annual celebration and found ways to help out by picking up trash, running the beer tent and more.
“It is our Independence Day,” he said. “July 4, did not free African Americans; we became truly free on June 19, 1865.”
Kearney believes that the reason Milwaukee continues to celebrate Juneteenth Day is because the African American community is committed to telling their story despite the naysayers, which once included the Department of Public Works and police department. This year, the Milwaukee Police Department and the Milwaukee County Sherriff’s office are the organizations partners.
With President Joe Biden set to sign the bill declaring Juneteenth Day as a federal holiday, Kearney said he expects the celebration to become more widespread. (Editor’s note: President Joe Biden has since signed the bill into law making Juneteenth a national holiday.)
The reality is that people don’t understand what Juneteenth is really about, Kearney said.
When General Gordon Granger and his troops rode into Galveston, the slave masters didn’t immediately agree to the news, Kearney explained. It had to be enforced, he said, or Granger wouldn’t have needed the troops.
“Race differences have always been a concern here,” he said. “Black lives matter, but they need to matter more to African Americans than they matter to anyone else, so that other folks understand how important it to us.”
This year, as part of Northcott’s celebration, Vedale Hill will be painting a Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of West Locust Street and North Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
In addition to Northcott’s celebration other groups have begun their own Juneteenth Day traditions. The Juneteenth Day celebration at Alice’s Garden, 2136 N. 21st St., began over a decade ago when Venice Williams, the executive director of Alice’s Garden, invited people to celebrate Juneteenth Day and Father’s Day in the garden.
During the celebration, she presented the Black men of the garden with a sweet potato pie, which connects back to Williams’ personal history.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Williams didn’t know about Juneteenth Day. She first learned about Juneteenth after moving to Milwaukee in June of 1988 to become the youth minister at Cross Lutheran Church.
“I thought I knew African American history,” she said. “I felt that I had been cheated of something all of those years.”
Looking back at history class, Williams said the true stories of Black people were often omitted from the teachings and history book.
“The omission of truth is a lie” she said, adding that people who escaped that oppression and lifestyle didn’t talk about what happened in the South.
Williams spent her first Juneteenth Day at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, at the time located on King Drive, talking with Dr. James Cameron, learning his story and sharing her own.
She shared with Cameron how her great-grandfather Henry Hoots narrowly escaped a lynching in what is now Selma, Alabama. Hoots was a homeowner and property-owner with an incredible farm. During the day, Hoots worked at a factory but a confrontation with his white supervisor forced him to leave town before sundown. Before he left, Hoots turned to his wife, Nellie Hoots, and told her to harvest his sweet potatoes and peanuts before coming north.
“And indeed, that’s why we celebrate Juneteenth, because my great-grandfather understood that even in a life and death situation, the most powerful thing he could do is feed his family,” Williams said.
The family filled a trunk with sweet potatoes and peanuts, and Williams’ grandma said she never had sweet potatoes or peanuts as tasty and as sweet as those.
“If we’re talking Juneteenth and we’re in an urban context and we have a 2.2-acre farm, we have to celebrate on this land,” Williams said.
This land is about food and people and stories, she said, adding that this land is a part of Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad and is where Caroline Quarlls sought refuge with Deacon Samuel Brown.
“We have to always celebrate Juneteenth here at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm,” she said. “Because we are the products of our ancestor’s wildest imaginations. Those ancestors who were chained as they cultivated food.”
In Williams’ mind, the trees that surround the garden represent the ancestors watching over the land and the people who carry on the tradition. Juneteenth is about emancipation and freedom, but at Alice’s Garden it is also about the ability to grow food and carry on that tradition, she said.
“We built the wealth of this nation on our ability to grow food,” she said. “And we’ll just always continue to do that here in this space.”
The celebration in Alice’s Garden is intentionally held in the evening so people can attend Northcott’s celebration, Williams said. She enjoys seeing the elders come to the garden and in honor of the ancestors, the Juneteenth Day celebration at Alice’s Garden begins with a libation ceremony.
Dr. Monique Liston, the chief strategist at UBUNTU Research and Evaluation, has been celebrating Juneteenth Day in the garden for the past 10 years. This year, she will perform the libation ceremony.
“The libation connects both our past and our future into the present moment, so that we understand this is where we’re situated and this is where we still need to go,” she said.
The celebration in Alice’s Garden symbolizes community, Liston said.
Every year, as a child, her father took her to the Juneteenth Day celebration and her mother would recount the history of the day. The day would be spent celebrating, eating food and enjoying each other’s company. When Liston went away to college, she learned that Juneteenth wasn’t something people celebrated or even knew about.
“I’m not surprised that people don’t know Black history, ever, because we’re not taught it,” Liston said, but in her mind, Juneteenth Day was equivalent to Martin Luther King Day, everyone acknowledged it but not everyone celebrated it.
Her favorite part of the celebration is the annual Juneteenth Day parade, and since its inception, Alice’s Garden has become a part of her Juneteenth celebration too.
This year, folks will hear from Dr. Monica White, the author of “Freedom Farmers,” and Gwen Holland, a genealogist and Williams’ cousin, will discuss preserving African American lineage. Liston, White and Holland are Williams’ dream team, she said.
“It’s sacred work,” she said. “Juneteenth is sacred work.”
Reggie Jackson, co-founder and lead trainer at Nurturing Diversity Partners, celebrated his first Juneteenth Day in 1994. The celebration was huge, he said. The streets were full of people having a good time, laughing, enjoying good food and seeing friends. Over the years, the day has become more meaningful to Jackson.
“I think it’s an incredibly important day that we celebrate for a number of reasons,” he said. “Number one is that it is a celebration of the last enslaved people in the country learning about the Emancipation Proclamation, literally two-and-a-half years after it passed.”
The second reason is Milwaukee’s own continued celebration. Milwaukee has lost so much over the years, he said, including African World Festival and, for a number of years, America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
“This is something that our community has ownership in,” Jackson said. “That allows us to have something that can be our own that we can be very proud of, that we can show ourselves and the community at large that we can come together and celebrate our existence and our shared humanity and celebrate our resilience.”
The impact of over 240 years of enslavement is still being felt, Jackson said. There aren’t always positive stories of Black people in Milwaukee, he continued, so this celebration is important to the psyche, and it can’t fall to the wayside.
In many ways, Milwaukee can be seen as the pioneer in making Juneteenth Day a big celebration, he said. He believes that more places will celebrate Juneteenth this year.
While Jackson enjoys the celebration, he enjoys watching it unfold too.
“I go in many ways as a spectator just to look at the positive vibe in Milwaukee’s Black community,” he said. “It just makes me feel good inside to see those things. I don’t necessarily go to celebrate Juneteenth, I kind of go more to celebrate that this is something really great that Black community has and does.”
According to Kearney, the festival has become akin to a City of Milwaukee festival. People look forward to it on a regular basis, he said. For Kearney, his favorite part of the day is the parade. This year, TMJ4 will air the parade for the first time ever. While the celebration has changed over the years, it once ended at midnight and saw an attendance of 100,000 people, Kearney said he wants it to be even bigger.
“Juneteenth should have always been a holiday,” Kearney said. “An American holiday not an African American holiday, but an American holiday because a war was fought, and this country needs to come back together. It still hasn’t.”
Juneteenth Day Events:
Northcott Neighborhood House will begin its celebration with its annual parade. The parade will begin at North 14th Street and West Atkinson Drive before heading toward West Burleigh Street and North Dr. Martin Luther King Drive at 8 a.m. A festival will follow on King Drive between West Burleigh Street and West North Avenue from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be entertainment, food, resources, a children’s carnival and more. This year the organization held its first legacy award, which awarded 25 persons for their commitment to continuing Juneteenth.
The celebration in Alice’s Garden, 2136 N. 21st Ave., will begin with the planting of Mandela’s Garden at noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 19. Mandela’s Garden will be planted in James Williams’ former plot and is a part of Alice’s Garden partnership with the Milwaukee Public Museum for its Nelson Mandela exhibition. After a brief reprieve, the celebration will continue at 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. with entertainment, speakers and more. Dr. Monique Liston will open with a libation ceremony, Gwen Holland will discuss genealogy and preserving African American lineages and Dr. Monica White will talk about her book “Freedom Farmers.”