By Mrinal Gokhale
Thousands soaked up the sun this past Sunday on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive between Center St. and Burleigh, enjoying music, live entertainers, food and browsing vendors and organizations seated under tents on this 90 degree day. This was the day of Milwaukee’s 45th annual Juneteenth festival.
The historic day of Juneteenth commemorates the day America’s last group of slaves in Texas became free on June 19, 1865. Texas was the first U.S. state to establish Juneteenth as a national annual holiday, and more than half the U.S. observes Juneteenth today. Milwaukee has held one of the longest running Juneteenth festivals in the country, now having celebrated for 45 years in a row.
Coincidently, Juneteenth 2016 fell on Father’s Day, giving the community all the more reason to celebrate.
It all began with a parade at 9 a.m., followed by the festival at noon. An opening ceremony took place on festival grounds, hosted by Andrea Williams of Jammin’ 98.3, a Juneteenth sponsor.
Sitting on stage were local lawmakers, political leaders, the 2015 Juneteenth pageant winner and three contestants, who all had a chance to speak on what Juneteenth means to them.
For Deshea Agee, executive director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District (BID), this day reminded him of the progress made within the BID he represents.
“There were not many businesses here on Milwaukee’s first Juneteenth, but today there’s diversity and economic diversity. It’s about making the community friendly for people to spend money in this area,” Agee said.
Among one of the first to speak was State Senator Lena Taylor, who helped make Juneteenth an official Wisconsin holiday in 2009.
She said that although Juneteenth emancipated America’s last slaves, there’s one more issue to be addressed: prison slavery.
“I looked at Wisconsin’s constitution and found out you can be a slave in prison,” she said. She then went into detail about a bill she has introduced to illegalize prison slavery in Wisconsin.
“We’re celebrating today, but more work must be done. It will take about two sessions to get it out,” she said.
Another issue brought to light at the ceremony was sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that predominantly affect African Americans. Two Sickle Cell MKE ambassadors said it’s their second year holding the Walk to End Sickle Cycle at Milwaukee’s Juneteenth parade.
“We must bring more awareness to sickle cell disease, so we have the walk each year so people can learn more about it,” said one ambassador.
She added that Sickle Cell MKE is also offering Juneteenth attendees a chance to donate blood to benefit sickle cell disease patients.
Some others who were honored included Miss Juneteenth 2015 along with three contestants who will compete next year. Unfortunately, the pageant couldn’t be held this year, but much to the contestants’ surprise, they were each handed a check.
Some others to speak were Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, District Attorney John Chisolm, State Rep. David Bowen, State Rep. Mandela Barnes and State Rep. Latonya Johnson.
The ceremony lasted about one hour and the festival ran from noon to 6 p.m. Milwaukee’s Juneteenth festival is coordinated by Northcott Neighborhood House, a nonprofit organization that works with Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. Northcott plans to hold Juneteenth again next year in the same location.