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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.
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.
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