'Mother' of Milwaukee Juneteenth Day celebrations reflects on its history

Posted at 11:11 AM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 20:53:41-04

Some have called her the mother of Milwaukee's Juneteenth day celebrations. The Milwaukee native shares how a discussion with her grandmother in Georgia birthed the idea of Milwaukee's first celebration.

Margret Henningsen knows a few things about Milwaukee's Juneteenth celebration history. She was a part of the first planning committee.

"It was mostly people they brought their grills the drummers came with their drums the dancers came with their dances."

Margaret remembers the first celebration in 1971 lasted until midnight.

"There were four black males coming towards us and one of them and stepped out and said did 'Y'all have anything to do with Juneteenth,' we said yes! He reached his hand down and pull me up and then he reaches down and pull Jan up and then he hugged both of us. That made it all worth everything we went through, but more importantly, it was that initial reaction that we had when we saw these four black males walking towards us who were very thoughtful about what happened, that something it happened to them that day and they loved the fact that we had all gathered together on 3rd street," said Henningsen.

Those humble beginnings started a 49-year tradition.

"This strikes a chord with people because it talks about our freedom and we should never ever let our freedom be taken from us."

What first started out as a neighborhood block party with a few thousand has grown to stretch eight blocks and draws a crowd of 100,000 every June 19th to King drive.

"The highlight of the 25th celebration was the emancipation proclamation that we flew here on a plane and you had to have on gloves when you touch it and you couldn't take pictures."

Juneteenth Day has been a labor of love for Northcott Neighborhood house. The community group organized the day-long celebration over the years.

"Let me say kudos to Mac Weddle and to the Northcott Neighborhood staff."

Though COVID-19 forced organizers to cancel this year's event, Margaret says there are still ways to celebrate.

"It's pretty amazing Milwaukee should be pretty proud of themselves, given that [they] were the most segregated city in the United States. The idea that we are able to come together and do this is significant," said Henningsen.

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