By Tammy Baldwin
158 years ago, word finally spread to enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War ended and they were free – officially ending slavery in our country and marking the freedom of every single African American.
It was on June 19th, 1865, that our country had its second independence day. And while these newly freed African Americans faced a future of uncertainty, they also now had a future filled with opportunity and hope. Tomorrow, and the day after, and the year after, and for ever after, they would be free.
This Juneteenth, I want to honor Wisconsin’s Black communities and Milwaukee’s historic Juneteenth celebration, while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done to move our nation forward.
Juneteenth in Milwaukee
Just two years ago, we worked hard to finally get Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday. While this legislative measure was long overdue, Black communities have been celebrating Juneeteenth for decades, with Milwaukee hosting one of the largest and oldest Juneteenth celebrations in the country. Milwaukee was one of the first northern American cities to host a Juneteenth celebration and this year marks the 52nd anniversary of it. Every year since 1971, Milwaukee’s Juneteenth celebration has entailed a parade, food, and camaraderie, and above all, it has served as a pillar of community.
I’m proud of Milwaukee’s longstanding history with its annual Juneteenth celebration, which has inspired countless more celebrations across the country. It is important to acknowledge that while Washington finally recognized Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021, our Black communities are the ones who put in the decades-long work to make this happen and have been keeping Juneteenth celebrations alive for generations.
Celebrating Wisconsin’s Black History
We can’t talk about the history of Wisconsin without talking about our Black communities here because Black history is Wisconsin history.
In the early years of our statehood, African Americans were coming to Wisconsin in the search of freedom and opportunity. They created anti-slavery establishments in the rural counties of Grant and Vernon and started settling in southeastern cities in Racine, Milwaukee, and Beloit. And during these years, Wisconsin served a critical role in the Underground Railroad and took a stand against the Fugitive Slave Act following Joshua Glover’s rescue.
Since then our Black communities have grown in population size and have brought so much culture, vibrancy, and history to Wisconsin. We have had Black Wisconsinites who have gone on to change the world including Joshua Glover, Vel Phillips, Rep. Gwen Moore, Dr. James Cameron, Al Jarreau, Porche Bennett-Bey, and countless others. And our state has been the hub of political movements and social change because of the strength of our Black communities who have been committed to organizing and creating lasting change.
Black history will always be a part of the past, present, and future of Wisconsin. Juneteenth is a reminder of Wisconsin’s Black history, but every day we need to let this history guide us and inspire us in our efforts to move our country forward.
Uplifting Wisconsin’s Black Communities
Our Black communities have done so much for our state, and I want to talk about some of the ways we have been working hard to make Wisconsin a better and more equitable place to live and raise a family.
Everything starts with a good paying job, but our Black communities have too often faced systemic barriers to economic mobility. That’s why I was proud to secure $550 million in new funds for minority-owned businesses including our Black-owned businesses right here in Wisconsin. And right now, this funding is being used to open Wisconsin’s first minority-owned business development center in Milwaukee.
We’re also working hard to make sure Milwaukee remains the manufacturing powerhouse of the Midwest. When we passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I made sure my Made in America provisions were included in there. Now, when we’re building new bridges and roads all across the country, we’re using American steel and American concrete to do it.
Another top priority for families is health care access. I was proud to champion the Affordable Care Act to make sure no one is denied care because of a pre-existing condition.
And just last year, we took on the drug industry again and beat Big Pharma, passing a law to lower drug prices and cap insulin costs at $35 a month for our seniors. But, I understand that in the fight for affordable health care we need to recognize the systemic health disparities Black communities face. Right now, I’m at the forefront of the fight to pass legislation that will save the lives of Black mothers and end racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes.
A Look to the Future
And while today is a celebration, it’s also a day of reckoning with our country’s history and the long-lasting effects of slavery. It’s recognizing that Wisconsin’s history is imperfect, and Milwaukee consistently ranks as one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. That’s why I promise, we are going to work harder than ever to make sure Wisconsin is a place of fairness, equality, and opportunity for all.
This starts with standing up against right wing extremism that is coming for our freedom to vote because voting rights are the foundation of our democracy, and we know just how powerful our vote is here in Wisconsin. Time and again the right-wing has tried to suppress the vote, gerrymander district lines, and prevent communities of color from having a say – we saw this in the 2022 Midterms when a Republican member of our state’s election commission bragged about voter suppression efforts in Milwaukee specifically toward Black and Latino voters. That’s why I’m fighting to pass legislation that will stop these right-wing suppression efforts and remove barriers to the constitutionally protected right to vote.
We’re also going to work hard to make sure that we reform our criminal justice system so it works for everyone. Working across party lines, I helped introduce the bipartisan Fair Chance Act, which would “ban the box” to help formerly incarcerated people secure steady jobs, support their families, and strengthen our communities. And right now, I’m working on bipartisan legislation that would reduce drug overdoses and provide mental health services for incarcerated individuals reentering society.
Since June 19th, 1865, our country has accomplished a lot but there is still progress to be made. For this year’s Juneteenth, I urge you to look to our Black community members who are working hard to make our homes safer and inclusive. Let it inspire you in this fight to keep making this world a better place for everyone, because that’s the legacy of Juneteenth.