First time in the city’s history the Juneteenth flag was flown over a municipal building on June 19. It was a long overdue recognition for Milwaukee’s Black community, and one of many smaller events that took place throughout the area to celebrate the special day.
Milwaukee is home to one of the longest standing Juneteenth Day celebrations in the country. Because the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the festivities for 2020, the city was able to start the day with a raising of the Juneteenth Day flag outside the Zeidler Municipal Building. The ceremony offered a positive way for the Milwaukee and residents to mark the holiday.
“Juneteenth is ‘Independence Day’ for African Americans, and it is important that we celebrate and recognize the history and significance of the day and what it means for thousands of Milwaukee residents and African Americans across the country,” said Alderwoman Chantia Lewis.
Alderwoman Lewis led the effort because she wanted to see the flag raised this year in support of Black Lives Matter. The social justice movement has focused national attention on systemic racism and police brutality directed at people of color.
“I was thinking about how can we make sure that we’re talking about Juneteenth, and how can we make sure that since we don’t have a celebration this year that we can still keep the celebration going,” added Alderwoman Lewis.
Joining her for the ceremony was city treasurer Spencer Coggs, Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, Alderwoman Nikiya Dodd, Common Council President Cavalier Johnson, and Mayor Tom Barrett.
“The jubilation and celebration that occurred after getting word of their freedom is something that 155 years later we celebrate here today. Just like how some people have July 4 as the day they celebrate this nation, for those of us of African descent in America, this is our day of liberation,” said Alderwoman Coggs. “So I think people should even celebrate with greater intention. My hope is that people pay tribute to our ancestors who fought and showed their resilience for us to even be here today. There are people across the globe unified on the idea and concept that Black Lives do in fact matter.”
Juneteenth Day commemorates the moment in history on June 19, 1865 when the final enslaved Africans in the United States were granted their freedom in Galveston, Texas. This year, Juneteenth Day holds even more significance as the people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the nation, work to make sure their voices are heard regarding issues of racial equality.
Common Council President Johnson explained there was nothing political behind the statement: “Black Lives Matter.” He said, “what it simply means is that people of African descent in this country deserve the same rights and privileges and guarantees of birth in this nation that everybody else does.”
The commemorative flag was designed by activist Ben Haith, founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF). Haith created the flag in 1997, and it was revised in 2000 to include the date “June 19, 1865” in remembrance of the day that Union Army Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and told enslaved African Americans of their emancipation.
The white star in the center of the flag represents Texas, the Lone Star State, but also symbolizes the freedom of African Americans in all 50 states. The bursting outline around the star was inspired by a nova, a term that astronomers use for the creation of a star, to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States and a new beginning.
The red, white, and blue represents the American flag, a reminder that slaves and their descendants were and are Americans. Juneteenth was officially recognized for the first time in Wisconsin in 2009.
“Those slaves in Galveston, Texas – for two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation – were still indentured, because their slave owners never told them they were free,” said Mayor Barrett.
Calling June 19 a historic day, Mayor Barrett reflected on how the first coronavirus infections arrived in the city and had a disproportionate impact on the African American community.
“I looked at the statistics and I thought, infant mortality, life expectancy, access to health care, cancer mortality, in every one of those categories, the indicators are worse for African Americans than they are for Caucasians. And that’s the reason that this city and this county declared racism a public health issue,” added Mayor Barrett. “We did it because Black Lives Matter.”
The original 1997 version of Juneteenth Flag without the date was also seen flying at various locations around the area, including the Milwaukee County Courthouse, Fiserv Forum, and All Saints’ Cathedral.