“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.” – President Joe Biden

Milwaukee is home to one of the longest held Juneteenth Day celebrations in the United States, and June 19, 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the local commemoration. Juneteenth officially became the 12th national holiday on June 17, after President Joe Biden signed a bill to recognize the day that has commemorated the end of chattel slavery.

Milwaukee’s parade and festivities have been organized by Northcott Neighborhood House for the past half century. With the expansion of vaccinations and lifting of health restrictions, the event was once again held in-person this year. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled celebrations in 2020, but the 2019 event saw 45,000 attend.

“It is an honor to celebrate Juneteenth as a major holiday in Milwaukee County for the first time. I am proud to be part of one of the first local governments in Wisconsin to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. “Juneteenth is a celebration of the rich history and culture of the Black community, but it is also a stark reminder that even after emancipation, the fight continues for equity, freedom, and justice for all peoples. That’s why I was thrilled to see Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday this week. Reflecting on the past and acknowledging the work we need to do to advance and uphold the ideals of equity is how we improve our union and make it a more just, fair, and equal place to live.”

County Executive Crowley said that as a holiday, recognizing Juneteenth was an important step on the road to fully recognizing America’s entire history. It also served as inspiration to continue pushing for change in the face of staunch opposition. However, much work remained to achieve racial equity and dismantle centuries of systemic racism.

The event kicked off with a parade from 14th Street and Atkinson Avenue, and traveled down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to Locust Street. Special activities then continued throughout the day, after the opening ceremony where State, County, and City leaders spoke to reflect on the celebration’s meaning.

“I have celebrated Juneteenth my whole life. The parade route was literally right outside of my house growing up. I have had the honor of being crowned Miss Juneteenth and my daughter has served as Little Miss Juneteenth. I have come to see Juneteenth Day as not just a celebration, but a time of reflection, restoration, and renewal,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, whose 6th Aldermanic District hosts the annual Juneteenth festivities. “Reflecting on the storied past of this country and the institution of slavery is a critical part of the day – as is taking time to restore physically, mentally, and emotionally from the daily impact of our past, along with looking to the future with renewed inspiration and focus to continue to work on how we each can help move our community and nation forward. With this in mind I hope that people celebrate this holiday with a greater intention and take a moment to reflect on the importance of the day.”

Juneteenth has widely represented the emancipation of enslaved African Americans following the Civil War and its violent aftermath, and is the oldest nationally recognized commemoration of slavery’s end. On 19 June 1865, roughly 2,000 Union Army soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people were now free. But the announcement arrived more than two years after Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation, which signaled the end of slavery in the United States but did not end the enslavement of all people in the nation at the time.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, was not passed by Congress until January 31, 1865. It was ratified later that year. Meanwhile, roughly 200,000 Black men had enlisted among the Union ranks in the months before Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9.

What was left of local Confederate armies and militia men held out in uprisings as slavers in the southern states migrated west to the Confederacy stronghold of Texas, along with thousands of enslaved people they had taken with them. For the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas upon the Union Army’s arrival, General Granger’s order did not instantly release them from their chains. Many slavers suppressed the news to the people they enslaved.

Juneteenth was not formally recognized in Texas until 1979. It was the first state to do so. Slavery’s formal end ushered in a decade of Reconstruction, which sought the continued emancipation of Black Americans and inclusion of the secessionist states into the US amid white supremacist paramilitary terror and a devastated post-war economy.

While the 13th Amendment prohibited the enslavement of Americans, it exempted slavery for those convicted of a crime. “Black codes” in economically devastated southern states subjected harsh penalties for newly freed Black Americans for crimes like loitering or breaking curfew, ensuring they would remain in chains for decades to follow.

The practice of “convict leasing” prisoners for labour to build railways and mines, among other private construction projects, became ”slavery by another name” that is echoed in today’s mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black Americans. Independence Day, or the Fourth of July – which marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – is recognized nationwide just a few weeks later.

In his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” address in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted the nation’s hypocrisy of celebrating Independence Day while imposing a brutal regime of slavery.

“Happy Juneteenth! The first U.S. holiday that’s illegal to teach about in 15 states.” – Trevor Noah