People participate in a Juneteenth march organized by the group Black Women's Emancipation in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, resilience, Black ancestry and a time to reflect on how to push against ongoing injustice against Black Americans. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
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On June 19, 1865, U.S. General Gordon Granger galloped into Galveston, Texas, to proclaim that the U.S. military had defeated the southern rebellion, and white Americans could no longer legally treat Black people as property. The news came 89 years after the country’s white founders declared that “all men are created equal,” and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

June 19 is now known as Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day or Black Independence Day. It’s a celebration of freedom, resilience and Black ancestry that offers time to reflect on how to fight longstanding injustice.

“It has a special place. It gives us a chance to debrief and think of how we’ll move forward, especially in terms of reforming the police, which is the unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement,” said Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, director of African studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and president of Uniting Bridges, a civil rights and social action group that organizes Juneteenth events in Eau Claire.

The celebration also offers a chance to revisit history and correct false narratives  — including a “lost cause” view of the Confederacy as protecting states’ rights instead of white supremacy and human bondage, she added. 

Some 155 years after Granger’s announcement, the question of whether the country has fully delivered its promise of freedom could hardly resonate more. This year’s celebration coincided with weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality and systematic racism following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It comes amid new hope for progress.

Jeff Roman, 36, listens to speakers and artists perform at a Juneteenth block party in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. Roman is project director of News414, a service journalism collaboration that includes Wisconsin Watch. He said this Juneteenth felt different to him for a number of reasons, including the amount of attention it has received from outside the Black community. “The multicultural diversity that I’ve been seeing all day today, typically you don’t see that a lot on Juneteenth. I’m glad to see diversity out today, and I would imagine that this is the first time that people outside the Black community have really had an opportunity to engage and learn about what Juneteenth really means.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Sunshine Ramel, an organizer with the group Black Women’s Emancipation, is seen at a Juneteenth march in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. “It was powerful for me to see a group of women organize a big march like this. It was powerful to see everyone come together and just love on each other.” Ramel said she has not been to other Juneteenth celebrations in the past, because she hasn’t always felt comfortable at them. “What was different about today was first, I was comfortable within myself, so it was easy for me to be comfortable around others. What made me the most comfortable was that I was walking into a group of people I consider my family, and we put this together. We’ve been working and working and working on different things, and today it finally happened. It feels wonderful.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Tony Driver volunteered with Milwaukee Health Services to pass out hand sanitizer at a Juneteenth event in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. Driver, 67, said he’s been coming to Juneteenth celebrations in Milwaukee for nearly his whole life, and lends his time to MHS as often as he can. “I’m just trying to help out any way I can. I enjoy doing it, I enjoy the people. I like people. A little kindness goes a long way.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
Janette Herrera, a volunteer with Milwaukee Health Services, helped pass out COVID-19 testing kits at a Juneteenth event in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. “The idea was, since we weren’t having a traditional Juneteenth celebration, let’s do something for the community,” Herrera said of the event, which also featured voter registration booths and medical professionals to talk with community members about their questions or concerns. “Without our health, we cant do anything.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Charles Warren, 73, helped paint a mural on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. Warren said he wanted to participate in the current movement. “This holiday is important to us as people of color, but not just people of color. Everyone. I’m a Vietnam veteran, I’ve been to Afghanistan. This is the greatest country in the world, but we got issues that need to be squelched.” Warren said he felt like there were fewer people participating in the festival than usual. “In terms of numbers, collectively, it feels different. But it’s the ideas that matter. People are coming together for the same ideas.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
Minister Paul Gordon, right, and Terrence Ray, left, pose for a photo at a mural-painting event on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. The two men run a legal consulting firm in Milwaukee to help laymen navigate civic and criminal law, and they came to see how the events happening in Milwaukee were different than previous Juneteenth celebrations. “We’re appalled that there’s no (traditional) Juneteenth celebration,” said Gordon. “I love these people, because we’re the non-conformists that came anyway,” said Ray. “June 19th, Juneteenth Day, it’ll never die. But the physical celebration of it has morphed over the years, that’s for sure. And to see that it has morphed into this is pretty interesting.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
Coriuntae Wallace, 17, helps paint a mural on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020.
Attendees at a Juneteenth block party in Milwaukee wait for food as cooks grill meat and vegetables on June 19, 2020. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Black Wisconsinites have celebrated Juneteenth to various degrees for more than a century, particularly but not exclusively in Milwaukee and Madison, Ducksworth-Lawton said. A 1894 Racine Daily Journal edition described an Emancipation Day “grand picnic,” that drew 200 visitors from across the country, followed by fireworks, music and dancing. But most celebrations did not draw attention from mainstream press until the 1990s and 2000s — when larger communities shifted from picnics in the park to giant celebrations, Ducksworth-Lawton added.

Juneteenth holds special prominence in Milwaukee, which in 1971 became one of the first northern cities to hold official festivities. The city typically holds one of the country’s largest celebrations, which include a parade and street market. This year’s holiday took on different forms due to a coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Wisconsin’s Black residents. 

Community organizers on Friday held a range of events focused on unity and action — including voter drives, mural painting, a youth rally, a march celebrating Black women and a blood drive.

But Juneteenth also holds a special place in smaller towns. This is the 20th anniversary of Eau Claire’s official celebration, which has typically been a picnic but this year unfolded online.

“It’s important because we have very small Black communities, and Juneteenth brings the Black and other racial communities together,” Ducksworth-Lawton said.

Sylvester Sly Perez, 40, helps out at a Juneteenth celebration in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. “I’m here to keep everything civil and organized, to do anything that the hard-working people here need,” he said. Perez, who moved to Milwaukee from Los Angeles two months ago, said he likes his new city better. “A lot more open space. People are a lot nicer in general. Everybody is a little bit more relaxed, I think. I’m glad to be a part of the community. I feel like I’m getting more and more involved in community activities.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

Markita, who declined to give her last name, is seen at the BLACK WMNZ Emancipation Protest and Juneteenth Block Party in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. Markita, 29, moved to Milwaukee 11 years ago, and she said that seeing the ongoing protests and Juneteenth celebrations made her hopeful. “The more we come into these spaces, even if it’s just boosting visibility, we’re out here and existing safety and peacefully, respectfully, that trickles into some of the more social aspects that I want to change.” she said. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
James Wright, 38, chairperson of the Kappa Phi chapter of Omega Psi Phi is seen in front of the voter registration booths being set up by his fraternity at a Juneteenth celebration on June 19, 2020, in Milwaukee. Wright said it was disappointing not to have a traditional Juneteenth celebration, as Milwaukee’s annual parade and festival was cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of that, Wright said he wanted the day to be a day of teaching about history, and about civic power, voting registration, and the importance of the census. “We don’t want people to forget the importance Juneteenth. It’s a day of freedom. It’s our Independence Day… we want this to be a day of learning, a day of love.” Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
Ian McCullough, 29, attended his first Juneteenth block party in Milwaukee, on June 19, 2020. “I’d been to Juneteenth afterparties the last couple years, but I’ve never participated in the whole day, McCullough said. “This is the first time I feel like I’m really experiencing it, and I’m still pretty ignorant to what it is, to be totally honest.” He said he attended an event this year because of recent protests against police misconduct and racial injustice. McCullough, whose mom tested positive for COVID-19, said he’d been in quarantine for multiple stretches over the past few months, totaling nearly six weeks of time. He said he was worried about the virus, but not enough to let it keep him home. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
Community members are led in a group meditation in front of the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee, before the BLACK WMNZ Emancipation March on June 19, 2020. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch
People participate in the BLACK WMNZ Emancipation March in Milwaukee on June 19, 2020. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

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