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

Juneteenth: The Day African Americans Truly Gained Freedom

Austin Public Library
Public domain
Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration on June 19, 1900 in Texas. Juneteenth Day celebrates the freeing of the last of the slaves after the American Civil War.

For many Americans, when they mention Independence Day, they’re talking about July 4, which commemorates the Declaration of Independence. But for African Americans, a different date signifies independence: June 19, 1865.

The date has been referred to as Freedom Day, Black Independence Day, or most commonly, Juneteenth. 

Wisconsin is one of at least 40 states that observe Juneteenth Day. Milwaukee was one of the first cities in the north to celebrate it; there's been an annual festival for over 40 years.

Juneteenth came two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that freed slaves in all states that rebelled against the Union.

Credit San Antonio Express
San Antonio Express
An 1868 San Antonio Express news clipping describes a Juneteenth Day celebration in Texas.

Kabria Baumgartner, assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, explains Juneteenth stems from a Union general’s order.

“In April 1865, as the Civil War was coming to an end, Union General Gordon Granger issued a general order in Galveston, Texas, that freed all enslaved African Americans. The order declared, ‘An equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.’ So, this order affirmed equality, rights, and property for African Americans.”

This was monumental, she says. From then on, Juneteenth became a prominent celebration in Texas and continues to be a major celebration nationally.

Baumgartner says newspapers described the early Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, as “freedom celebrations.” Here's an excerpt from an 1868 article, titled "The Jubilee", in the San Antonio Express:

“It was a most interesting sight to see so many of those people celebrating their freedom. They came in carriages, buggies, wagons and on horseback. They were all well-dressed, the women looked neat without any display of finery – good humor and contentment beamed from every countenance.”

“It really was just about African Americans hosting a feast or dinner, and then a discussion and then they marched in the streets. So, there was sometimes a parade. It was really considered a fun and commemorative celebration,” Baumgartner says.

Celebrations these days can vary in different cities, but parades are common. Other activities may include the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, barbecues, prayer services, or sporting events.

Baumgartner says people may dress up, perform dances, and enjoy socializing with friends and family.

The latter is something Clayborn Benson says is one of the best parts about the Juneteenth celebration here in Milwaukee. He’s the director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum.

“It’s a time in which you really do make reacquaintances, see friends you haven’t seen in a long time. That’s probably the most valuable thing,” he says.

Benson remembers attending the first Juneteenth celebration in Milwaukee more than 40 years ago. He was working as a cameraman covering the event for Channel 4, but remembers there being “a sea of people everywhere” with an estimated crowd of more than 50,000.

Credit 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.

Benson says it’s vital for African Americans of all ages to know and understand the history of the holiday.

“It’s important that we have a sense of understanding of our struggle and what we’ve gone through. It gives us a sense of balance, a sense of power to know what your father and grandfather and great-grandfather have gone through so that you can be. And it empowers you to be strong and to demand your rights, but more than that to share it with your children and grandchildren," he says.

Northcott Neighborhood House has organized Juneteenth festivities since the celebration began. And according to Milwaukee Magazine, the festival is the longest continuously running cultural festival in Milwaukee. 

But this year, the typical Juneteenth celebrations in Milwaukee, such as the annual festival, won’t look as they have in the past due to the threat of the coronavirus.

However, organizations are using the day to promote unity and education through a number of events. The plans include marches, voter registration drives, and the sharing of health information, including about the coronavirus.

And for the first time in history, the Juneteenth Day flag will fly over Milwaukee’s municipal building and the state Capitol building in Madison.

Editor's note: This story has been updated. It originally aired June 19, 2019.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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