Eli King (left) takes a somber walk through makeshift tombstones with names of Black people who were victims of racial injustice during the June 19 Juneteenth event as brother, Gabriel King, watches in the background. (Photo by Jason Arndt)

Juneteenth celebration highlights call for more dialogue

By Jason Arndt

Staff Writer

Juneteenth is an annual celebration commemorating freedom of all slaves in the United States and this year’s event brought increased awareness amid protests for racial justice across the country.

And for the first time, the 155-year-old holiday came to Burlington June 19, when nearly 300 people of all races converged in Echo Veterans Memorial Park to better understand why it is an important component to the civil rights movement.

Event organizer Darnisha Garbade, of Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism, came away pleased and uplifted by the turnout.

“I think the turnout is really amazing, over the four years that I have lived here in Burlington, this is the most people of color I have ever seen,” she said. “There are so many white allies out here supporting us. It is amazing.”

Most of the participants were wearing masks or face coverings to mitigate spread of COVID-19.

District 9 Supervisor Eric Hopkins of the Racine County Board delivers an address on race relations in the nation during a June 19 Juneteenth celebration at Burlington’s Echo Memorial Veterans Park. (Photo by Jason Arndt)

Racine County Supervisor Eric Hopkins, of District 9 in the City of Racine, told hundreds in attendance why the annual event is worth celebrating and outlined why more work is needed to achieve racial justice.

Hopkins, who is black, often attended Juneteenth celebrations in the City of Racine and wanted to share the message with the Burlington community.

“Juneteenth is an annual holiday observing the end of slavery in the United States. It is also known as freedom day or emancipation day,” he said.

The effective end of slavery occurred on June 19, 1865, when news of the emancipation finally arrived to deeply Confederate Galveston, Texas.

“This was two years after the emancipation order was signed by President Abraham Lincoln ending slavery, that is, the Emancipation Proclamation,” Hopkins said. “No doubt, much of the delay can be attributed to the Civil War ending two months before.”

Since then, Juneteenth has been celebrated through religious services, dances and community feasts, all of which happened in Burlington.

“I have been to Juneteenth celebrations in Racine over the years, and it is much the same,” Hopkins said. “Churches and other community businesses and organizations come out to present and celebrate.”

Juneteenth, according to Hopkins, is acknowledged or recognized as a holiday in 47 of 50 states as well as Washington, D.C.

Hopkins, however, said Juneteenth offers a reflection on the history of race in the United States as well as current state of race relations.

The current state, he said, signifies a growing need for further progress to address racial disparities in Wisconsin and the nation.

Racial disparities not only exist in law enforcement, he said, adding the current COVID-19 pandemic has caused more hardship in a black community already faced with inequalities in both education and justice system.

“It is not hard to conclude, as many of my colleagues, and recognized authorities would agree, systemic inequalities, or racialized inequalities is what is at issue here,” he said.


State needs improvement, speaker says

According to Hopkins, systemic inequalities exist within law enforcement, court system and in education.

The inequalities, he said, necessitate the need for many reforms.

“Wisconsin has one of the highest incarceration rates of blacks in the nation. Leading also to the need for bail and parole reform,” he said. “I am talking about radicalized thinking, racial bias, or implicit bias that operates in pervasive ways in our society and social institutions.”

Many national studies have shown Wisconsin ranks among the top five worst states for blacks to live.


A catalyst

Recent cases involving Ahmaud Arbery, a black man shot dead by a white father and son while jogging, and George Floyd in Minneapolis have sparked new discussions about race relations both statewide and nationally.

Floyd, accused by a store clerk of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, was died at the hands white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for more than seven minutes as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe!”

“George Floyd’s tragedy could be viewed as a catalyst, a game-changer, in terms of the arch towards greater justice and inequality. Historically significant? I would say yes,” Hopkins said.

“Despite the progress and gains made during the civil rights era, much work remains to be done, some of which was arguably undone. This need is evidenced by the systemic issues I mentioned earlier.”


Constant commitment

Lisa Jones, of Milwaukee, spoke on behalf of Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope.

Jones, MICAH’s lead organizer, stressed the current movement should not be considered a fad, but rather a long-term commitment.

That commitment includes better educating children on racial injustices committed against black communities.

“They have to instill it into their children and we have to start really teaching kids about history,” Jones said. “Many people here did not know about Juneteenth Day until recently with what is going on in our country.”

Hopkins, like Jones, strongly encouraged community members to stay engaged and have critical conversations with people.

Conservations, he said, include people of different races and backgrounds.

“I strongly encourage all of you to be engaged in this work. Have those critical conversations at home and in your neighborhoods, with family and friends,” Hopkins said.

“Challenge yourself to be authentically engaged with people who do not look like you or live the same way you do.”

The peaceful celebration, meanwhile, could continue in Burlington after a positive initial launch.

“We are thinking about doing this annually,” Garbade said. “We really believe Juneteenth is a really important holiday and it needs to be celebrated.”