Facebook Twitter

ONLINE DOCUMENT: `JUNETEENTH’ FESTIVAL ROOTED IN HISTORY, HAS BLOSSOMED SINCE 1972

SHARE ONLINE DOCUMENT: `JUNETEENTH’ FESTIVAL ROOTED IN HISTORY, HAS BLOSSOMED SINCE 1972

When employees at the Northcott Neighborhood House gathered for a staff meeting in 1972 to discuss ways of energizing Milwaukee's inner city, no one could have imagined they would start something that would become one of the largest African-American celebrations in the country.

It was at this staff meeting that Margaret Henningsen - then named Margaret Rogers, and the director of Northcott's Head Start program - recalled a bit of oral tradition passed to her more than a decade earlier.Henningsen had been on a family trip to Georgia, when her grandmother introduced her to the concept of "Juneteenth" or "Jubilee" day, the day in June 1865 when the last slaves were informed of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A well-known celebration in the South, blacks in the North were generally unacquainted with the celebration.

"We were trying to do something to help (the neighborhood), but it was also important for us to focus attention on our own selves as a culture and a community," Henningsen, now a vice president of TCF Bank, said in a recent interview.

"At the time, I don't think any of us thought of it as more than a one-time event," she said.

A lot has changed since then. The name for upper 3rd St. has changed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and the friendly little Juneteenth Day festival has blossomed into an annual celebration of black culture. It now draws crowds from all over the Midwest.

When attendees gather for the celebration on King Drive June 19, it will mark the 25th consecutive year of Juneteenth Day in Milwaukee - something Henningsen finds baffling.

"That very first one, we focused on music, the visual arts, and food," Henningsen said.

Milwaukee's Juneteenth took on some parts of other other cities' celebrations but also was distinctly Milwaukee.

"It took on its own flavor," she said. "We were the first northern city to do this. We did this with no money. It was mostly word of mouth that got people out there."

The festival grew steadily over the years, eventually drawing more than 100,000 people.

Henningsen has been to all but two celebrations.

"That first one was so unique," she said. "There was no real structure, but people bought into it. For me, it was like a dream come true. I was so scared that no one would show up that I couldn't sleep the night before."

For her efforts in helping start the Juneteenth tradition, Henningsen will be honored Saturday at Milwaukee's annual "Freedom Ball."