The last group of slaves in the United States were officially freed after Union troops finally won the Civil War and arrived in Galveston, Texas, to share the news on June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth commemorates that day. And where 2,000 Union troops brought the news to Galveston, one woman heralded the celebration in Milwaukee: Margaret Henningsen, now known as the mother of Juneteenth Milwaukee.
The History of Juneteenth Milwaukee
President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 19, 2021, to mark the 156th anniversary of the last day of slavery in the U.S. Also called Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, African Americans in the South have been celebrating the holiday since the Civil War ended in 1865.
However, Henningsen says people in the North had not heard of it when Northcott Neighborhood House first tried to launch Juneteenth in Milwaukee back in the 70s. Juneteenth Milwaukee, the big, local annual event that it is today, arose from the riots of 1967, one of many race riots that sparked nationwide then over the same racial and police brutality issues that still exist today.
On 3rd Street, now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, local residents then were witnessing “total decline” as people and businesses left the neighborhood. “Northcott at that time was located on 3rd Street, and we were feeling the effects of the decline as we watched businesses move off the street and move out of the surrounding neighborhoods,” says Henningsen, a Milwaukee native and longtime Northcott leader.
The Northcott staff had been discussing ways to revitalize the neighborhood when she remembered a conversation with her father’s grandmother while visiting her in Perry, Georgia, back in 1961. Her great-grandmother, Maggie Pettigrew, had told her stories of Blacks in the South who celebrated their heritage and history of freedom from slavery.
Yet somehow, decades since the Emancipation Proclamation, the organizers in the room still had not heard of Juneteenth. And as they started researching the history of Juneteenth, they soon realized they were not the only ones in the North to have never heard about the Juneteenth celebrations of the South. “No one in the room had ever heard of Juneteenth but we all liked the idea of having a Juneteenth celebration here in Milwaukee on 3rd Street,” she says.
And thus Juneteenth Milwaukee was born.
Going for over half a century
Now in its 52nd year, Juneteenth Milwaukee is ever-expanding with two new corners this year: Seniors Zone and Vets Zone, according to Tony Kearney, executive director of Northcott House, which still puts on the annual celebrations.
“The two new zones are to recognize individuals,” Kearney says, noting Northcott’s large senior population. “So we needed to do something special for them. We would not be here doing the things we’re doing if not for the seniors.”
He also addressed the considerable number of veterans in Milwaukee. “We continue to have this travesty of veterans being homeless and veterans being unemployed. So there’s a number of veterans groups that work very, very hard to try to alleviate that, and I think they need to be highlighted.”
The Seniors Zone in the parking lot of Walgreens on the corner of MLK Drive and Locust Street will be offering diabetes checks and blood pressure screenings. The Teen Zone will feature basketball tournaments, dunk contests and a hula hoop competition. At various zones, prizes include stuffed animals for the kids like Baby Yoda to sports memorabilia from Milwaukee-area teams like the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Bucks.
The silent auction, like last year, will offer tickets to games, autographed jerseys and entrance to Milwaukee Brewers suites. Similarly, an autographed guitar from blues legend Buddy Guy will again be up for auction this year. However, the 86-year-old musician plans to retire from touring this year, his 2023 Damn Right Farewell Tour set to conclude in October, so this year’s auctioned guitar is expected to be one of the last from his final tours.
Last year’s auction raised $22,000. The proceeds go to fund scholarships for the Juneteenth Pageant, which is in its 32nd year. Miss and Mister Juneteenth per age brackets and their respective courts will be introduced at the Freedom Ball on June 10, as well as various awards that are announced at the educational and cultural event. They also feature Legacy Awards for Juneteenth long-time volunteers, a Father of the Year award to commemorate the holiday in June, and a Community Commitment award to a non-African American member. In 2022, the funds from the auction went to fund nine scholarships ranging between $1,500 and $4,000 to students residing in the City of Milwaukee with a minimum GPA of 2.5.
Kearney expects the two new zones to be a permanent addition to the Juneteenth family of festivities, adding three years ago, they didn’t have a Teen Zone or a Kids Zone either until they were created “to give kids and teens their own space.” He takes pride in the fact the event continues to grow.
Last year, over 300 vendors participated and the festivities drew an estimated 50,000 people, according to organizers. Vendors range from food trucks to local companies that are hiring.
The attractions are many: Every year, the Jubilee parade kicks off Juneteenth. There is something for everyone: a carnival, pony rides, and petting zoo for the kids and a Kids Zone at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, where parents can drop them off. Kearney says they have a matching bracelets system, where matching bracelets are given to parents and their children to ensure the kids go home with their proper guardians.
As of early May, Northcott had about 130 volunteers, but they need more than double that this June. Last year, they had 227 volunteers, but with two new zones this year, organizers are hoping for 300 volunteers and also looking for corporate service partners.
“I Am Juneteenth” Today
While Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery in the country, Kearney says the day marks freedom for all. “Juneteenth recognizes freedom and not just for the slaves – it recognizes freedom for the entire country,” he says. “It took the stain (of slavery) off the country.”
This year’s theme is “I Am Juneteenth,” which Kearney says is to highlight inclusivity and emphasize the holiday is for everyone, not just Blacks. “I’m hoping people will come together and understand each other,” he says. “I’m hoping that individuals of other races will experience African American culture and see what we see: the best of us. Not the 1% of folks who are doing something stupid on the nightly news.”
Kearney continues to spotlight “one country” in discussing Juneteenth, clearly passionate about unity. “Everyone is welcome. We strive to be inclusive,” Kearney says. “Juneteenth is an American holiday, not just an African American holiday.”
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How to go: Juneteenth Milwaukee
Juneteenth Milwaukee is a series of events celebrating Juneteenth Day, which is June 19, 2023. These include a June 19 Street Festival and Saturday summer concerts, among other events. For more information, visit JuneteenthMilwaukee.com.