June 16, 2020
By Talis Shelbourne
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In his mid-20s, Reggie Jackson found himself amid a crowd thick with people, summer and the camaraderie of celebrating Black culture — he was in the midst of Milwaukee’s celebration of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth marks the day — June 19, 1865 — when the last slaves in the South, in Galveston, Texas, learned from Union soldiers that the Civil War was over and they were free. That event took place two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and before the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865.
The spirit of freedom was on full display when Jackson, now head griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, attended a celebration in the 1990s.
“I remember they had a lot of live bands performing, a lot of local musicians. And the one piece of food that I remember — they had these big, gigantic smoked turkey legs, and they were delicious. I got one while I was there and before the end of the day, I went back and got another one to take it home with me.”
Milwaukee’s Juneteenth celebration was spearheaded by McArthur Weddle, executive director of the Northcott Neighborhood House, in 1971. Since its inception, the holiday has grown to include food, music, art, storytelling and literal pageantry — a Little Miss Juneteenth day pageant for young girls between the ages of seven and 13 was added 27 years ago.
The coronavirus pandemic has certainly affected how Juneteenth celebrations across the country will take place this year. But in light of the recent protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died with his neck pinned under the knee of since-fired Minneapolis police officer, and racial equity, organizers believe Juneteenth is more important than ever. Several events are tackling the spirit behind this unofficial holiday in person and virtually.
A Day of Love will also be a day of action
“We are not free until all of us are free.”
That’s the central message behind the Juneteenth Day event that Ramel Kweku Akyriefi Smith and Kim Eubanks put together in cooperation with several partners including the Milwaukee Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Clarence and Mildred Parrish Foundation, League of Women Voters and the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.
To ensure that the voice of everyone protesting is heard at the ballot box, Smith said they focused on voter registration.
“We’re not telling people how to vote, we’re getting them prepared to do so,” he said. “It’s one of the most American things you can do, to use your voice.”
Smith is asking people to reach out to eight others in their lives to help them with voter registration and filling out census forms — eight in honor of how long Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck.
Smith said that it’s important for new allies of the Black community to recognize the importance of Juneteenth.
“Did you even know that this date meant something to us, why do some people have a hard time celebrating the Fourth of July?” he asked.
He has invited officers from the Milwaukee Police Department’s District 5 to the event.
“We want enough people there to make a movement, and we encourage everybody to do things in their area, too. We want people to celebrate Juneteenth in Waukesha, Mequon, Elkhorn and Kenosha — wherever it may be.”
The program will focus on education and action, Smith said. Here’s the schedule:
10 a.m. to 3 p.m.: Milwaukee Health Services, 2555 N. King Drive, COVID-19 education
Noon to 3 p.m.: Victory Park, 2601 N. King Drive: Voter registration and census education
4 to 5 p.m.: Fraternity House, 2661 N. 2nd St.: a march to Clinton Rose Center, 3045 N. King Drive, will take place
5 p.m.: A program outside Milwaukee Health Services, 2555 N. King Drive, and All People’s Church, 2600 N. 2nd St.
6 to 8 p.m.: Fraternity House, 2661 N. 2nd St.: Voter registration.
Safe & Sound will showcase youth talent, highlight Milwaukee history
Damien Smith, a youth coordinator for Safe & Sound, remembers when the corner of King Drive and Chambers Street was a hot spot for trouble. With the help of his mentorship and a basketball court outside of Clinton Rose Senior Center, 3045 N. King Drive, that’s no longer the case.
“It changed from a space where a lot of families didn’t want to go and people talked (about it) negatively. But in the past few years, it’s changed into something very positive,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has ruled out an in-person celebration this year, but Smith wanted to keep the tradition alive with a virtual presentation, which will feature a youth talent showcase. You can attend the virtual session by visiting bit.ly/ss-virtual-juneteenth.
“As a youth organizing team leader, I was like, ‘What can we do since everything is virtual and people aren’t performing in actual spaces?’ ” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s do it virtually, let’s have people submit stuff.’ ”
At noon, there will be roughly 15 artists showcasing their poetry, drumming, rap and singing talent, and in between each performance, there will be promotions of black businesses and education from community voices such as Clayborn Benson, founder of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, and Jackson, the head griot at America’s Black Holocaust Museum.
“We’ll have residents talking about their Black history in general because we really want to bring about that Black history is not just something that happens in February.”
There will also be a promotion where artists can nominate five families for whom Safe & Sound will give a meal.
“This shows how resilient of a people we are,” he said. “Juneteenth in Milwaukee is one of the biggest and longest Juneteenth celebrations in the country. We want to show we were resilient, we could do it and we also want people to walk away having learned something.”
“Black history is American history. You can’t separate the two.”
Other Juneteenth events
These events also taking place on Juneteenth on Friday:
• The Black Wmnz Emancipation March is holding a march and block party from 1 to 7:30 p.m., beginning at Sojourner Family Peace Center, 619 E. Walnut St.
• Milwaukee Health Services is holding a Juneteenth Day COVID-19 Safety Kit Giveaway at the MLK Heritage Health Center, 2555 N. King Drive, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• Keep Your Head Up Society’s Juneteenth Celebration is from noon to 4 p.m. on 14th and Burleigh streets.
• Rise & Grind Cafe, 2737 N. King Drive) is holding a cash mob to support local businesses from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.