The sun was shining, the music was loud and the streets were full at the 45th annual Juneteenth Day Festival. This year the rich Milwaukee tradition also coincided with Father’s Day, bringing families out to attend the festival together.

Juneteenth Day is one of the country’s oldest observed holidays, and commemorates the day the last slaves were freed in 1865 following the Civil War.

“We all know when the Fourth of July is and celebrate the independence of America, but not everyone knows when to celebrate the independence of the slaves,” said Ricky Slade, a program coordinator at Running Rebels Community Organization, who monitors youth who are on probation. Slade said he wanted to encourage young people to get a holistic understanding of the past. “The slaves were a big part of the founding of America, and it’s important for young people to have a balanced history.”

In addition to honoring the significance of the past and how slavery continues to affect today’s society, the festival also served as an opportunity for friends and families to gather and enjoy what their community has to offer.

“Juneteenth is so community-oriented. I grew up in Milwaukee, and I get to see so many people and a lot of friends who I don’t see throughout the year,” said Peggy Roberts, who works at Northcott Neighborhood House, the nonprofit that organizes Juneteenth Day Festival.

The day of celebration kicked off at 9 a.m. with a parade including waving Miss Juneteenth contestants, performing dance groups, smiling politicians and enthusiastic community organizations, and continued with a festival until 5 p.m.

Energy remained high as vendors selling everything from corn on the cob, to spring rolls, to homemade natural shea butter lotion lined the sidewalks of N. King Drive running from W. Center Street to W. Burleigh Street. The streets were packed with everyone from young, bubble-blowing children, to elderly couples in wheelchairs.

Both kids and adults formed long lines behind food trucks selling summer treats, snow cones and ice cream.

Different community resources and advocacy groups also had booths dispersed among the food, music and shopping options, offering festival-goers information related to service providers, churches, schools, social issues and upcoming elections.

Billy Trammel brought a life-size jail cell to the event. Trammel is part of the Phenomenal Men Support Group, an organization of formerly incarcerated men. “We tell the young people we work with, ‘If you hang around negativity, you’re going to be negative. Always be positive, and always be a leader.’ …We’re putting back in the community what we took out,” Trammel said.

When 10-year-old Lay Lay Kazee was asked how her Juneteenth Day was going at her bright pink and yellow lemonade stand, all she could say was, “Really good!”

Allison Dikanovic

Originally published on the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service as Juneteenth Day Festival honors history while celebrating the present