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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

'It's Clear We're Still Fighting For That Dignity' Says Venice Williams As Milwaukee Marks 50th Juneteenth Celebration

Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library
View of a large crowd of people filling Milwaukee's Third Street during the celebration of Juneteenth Day on June 19, 1984.

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Juneteenth Day celebrations in Milwaukee. The city was one of the first in the north to celebrate the day, which commemorates June 19, 1865 — the day enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas learned they were free.

That was two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Since 1865, Black people in a number of cities have celebrated Juneteenth.

Venice Williams, executive director of Alice’s Garden Urban Farm on North 21st Street in Milwaukee, says she’s glad the Juneteenth tradition has continued in Milwaukee. Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where Juneteenth was never mentioned or studied. But that changed for Williams when she moved to Milwaukee in 1988.

"It was like I had just received the news in Galveston," she says. "So, moving to Milwaukee and being made aware of this piece of history was very affirming and welcoming."

Williams says in addition to attending the annual festival, Alice's Garden hosts its own Juneteenth event, and has been for over ten years.

"Having a farm and being a farmer creates a whole other context of celebration. So, along with honoring the city’s 50th, at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm, we do an evening celebration since 2010. So, we like to do something that is set; you know what better space than at a farm in soil surrounded by collard greens and okra, and all of that," she says.

Something Williams enjoys most about Juneteenth Day celebrations is seeing the joy it brings out of people. "It’s a recognition of freedom and there’s just so much obvious joy on King Drive. People are celebrating, people are dancing. There’s music, it’s a happy day," she says. "And I know that sounds crazy, but we can't take happiness and enjoy for granted in these moment, especially as Black folks in this country. We had to struggle for joy. You know we had to claim joy and make it clear that the pursuit of happiness indeed is one of our liberties. So, just the joy of the day is enough."

But this Juneteenth follows a tense year of social justice movements, sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. Williams says it's clear that Black people are still fighting for the right to just be.

"I think it's clear for so many of us that we're still fighting for that dignity. We're still having to demand that people of white and people of white in power acknowledge our full humanity and our right to exist and literally our right to breathe on the planet. [Juneteenth is] about remembering our ancestral struggle for freedom and placing it within the very real context of our current situation," she says.

Speaking of current situations, Juneteenth will be recognized as a federal holiday moving forward, but people have mixed feelings. Some say it’s about time this holiday be recognized, but then there are others who say that it rings hollow as politicians are taking actions like banning critical race theory in schools and disenfranchising voters.

Williams says she appreciates that those in power acknowledge the need to recognize Juneteenth, but it doesn't negate that there are others who will never agree.

"I’m glad there had been some kind of cultural, spiritual, and human awakening for some people of white," she says. "But we’re not crazy. Everybody’s not gonna all embrace us and they never will. But everything has to have a next point or a starting point, so, in order for there to be at least more comprehensive change and comprehensive movement to equity and liberation, true liberation, again it has to start somewhere," she says.

Williams says it's a continuation of an ancestral struggle.

Milwaukee’s 50th Annual Juneteenth Day Celebration starts Saturday morning with the parade kick off at North 14th Street and West Atkinson Avenue.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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