Freedom’s Ring: Juneteenth Day’s Storied Past in Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s Juneteenth Day festival — the longest continuously running cultural festival in Milwaukee — prepares to step off for its 46th year.

On June 19, 1977 – a year before Festa Italiana and Mexican Fiesta would debut as the lakefront’s first major ethnic festivals – approximately one-fifth of Milwaukee’s population gathered in the inner-city Harambee neighborhood for another kind of celebration. On this breezy Sunday, onlookers crowded both sides of Center Street and cheered as the city’s seventh Juneteenth Day festival’s opening parade approached North Third Street. A long day of revelry awaited. Leading the procession was the slender and bespectacled Lloyd Barbee, a local civil rights leader and attorney who’d led the drive between 1965 and 1976 to win a desegregation order on the city’s schools. Following close behind were neighborhood children who, inspired by the show of community, had dashed from their families’ homes to join the parade.

That year, a record 140,000 attendees pushed Juneteenth Day (always June 19) into the mainstream. The annual event stands as the longest continuously running cultural festival in Milwaukee. It honors the day in June 1865 when the Union Army brought word of the Emancipation Proclamation to Texas, freeing the last of the country’s slaves. Celebrations in other parts of the country began the year after, but didn’t reach Milwaukee until 1971, when the city became one of the first in the North to honor the day. The festival began like a big block party with beer, sweet corn, barbecue, soul music and gospel, plus appearances by leading African-Americans in the city. One of the festival’s pioneers, the late Janet Kemp, told the Milwaukee Journal in 1986, “Ever since black people came to America, they have been able to come together and get a camaraderie that says, ‘I’m going to survive. I’m going to make it.’”

This year’s 46th annual Juneteenth Day festival will take place along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, between Burleigh and Center streets. As is the custom, a parade will kick off the fun, setting off from Green Bay Avenue and Capitol Drive at 10 a.m. And later in the day, young women will compete to win the title of Miss Juneteenth, a pageant that will test their “personality and poise,” African dress and talent of choice. Overall attendance is expected run in the tens of thousands. For more info, see

‘Freedom’s Ring’ appears in the 2016 City Guide issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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