Juneteenth becomes an official Wisconsin State Holiday
It’s Official
By Jonathan Gramling

     It’s been over 140 years in the making. On June 19, 1865, African American slaves in
Galveston, Texas became the last to find out they had been freed by the Emancipation
Proclamation. Ever since, Juneteenth Day — as it became known — has been recognized
as the African American Emancipation Day and annual celebrations have cropped up
across the United States and the world.
     But just as it has been a long struggle for African Americans to gain their de facto
civil rights, it has also been a long struggle to get Juneteenth recognized as an official
holiday. While it had been proposed many times in the Wisconsin state legislature, 2009
proved to be the magical year for Wisconsin. Through the efforts of State Senator Spencer
Coggs and other legislators, the bill making Juneteenth Day an official state holiday was
passed into law. On December 1, Governor James Doyle signed the bill into law at the
Northcott Neighborhood House, which held the first Juneteenth Day celebration in
Wisconsin 38 years ago, making Wisconsin the 32nd state to declare Juneteenth a state
holiday.
      It was an exciting moment for Mona Adams Winston who with Annie Weatherby-
Flowers founded Madison’s Juneteenth Day celebration 20 years ago. “Personally I have
goose bumps,” Winston said. “I’ve known the governor for years. I knew him back when
he was a district attorney in Madison. It’s not like I’m nervous that he is coming, but I
think I’m feeling just a little choked up because of being here for history, to see something
that is part of history, something that I feel so strongly about. To have the whole state
recognize what we’ve been doing is really exciting. It’s a little overwhelming and has me
a little choked up.”
      Before he signed the bill, Doyle talked to the audience about the significance of Juneteenth Day becoming a state holiday. He noted that
his wife and sons had attended the Milwaukee Juneteenth celebration many times. And while Doyle emphasized the meaning that Juneteenth
has for African Americans, he also emphasized that it was important to all Americans.
      “Today is a very, very important day,” Doyle said. “Let me say that we celebrate the Fourth of July and it is a great, great holiday of
American independence. And it is a holiday that is held out across the world as a day in which freedom was born and a free country was born.
But we know that when July 4th was really started that the true freedom of this country was not extended to all its citizens. And there were
people — without getting into legal history on all of this — who had never really been credited for the Constitutional changes that were made
in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the late 1860s that really, as a legal matter, brought freedom. There were still
a lot of practical issues to get through. But as a legal matter, it brought freedom to all of the citizens of the United States. So Juneteenth to me,
is really a celebration that completes the Fourth of July. This is the day we should recognize and honor together and in complement to the
Fourth of July. The Fourth of July, when it started, was a day that showed the promise of freedom. And Juneteenth is the day in which freedom
was truly delivered. This is a great day to celebrate as I sign this bill that will officially become the law of Wisconsin that Juneteenth is a
holiday in the state. And it is for us then to make sure that this is not just a day that is on the legal books, but is day that we actually celebrate
the true promise of American freedom.”
      Dr. Ron Meyers, a native of Milwaukee and graduate of the UW-Madison Medical School who practices medicine in Tchula, Mississippi,
has been spearheading the national effort to get Juneteenth Day recognized for years. For him, the signing of the Juneteenth bill is just the
beginning of a four point agenda to ensure that Juneteenth is a meaningful holiday. It can now lead to an inclusion of Juneteenth in teaching
curricula. “Now that the state has officially recognized the holiday, it has the responsibility to teach it in the school curriculum,” Meyers said.
“So through the Juneteenth commission, we have to work with the State Department of Public Instruction to make sure that the school
curriculums in the public schools include an accurate description of Juneteenth, which the Congress recognized as the Juneteenth
Independence Day.”
      Second on Meyers’ list is ensuring that the legacy of slavery and abolition efforts in Wisconsin are preserved for posterity. “I believe
there was a Quaker population here during that time who were abolitionists,” Meyers said. “We try to acknowledge the Quakers for the role
they played in abolishing slavery. Also there is some unique history in Wisconsin in terms of the abolition of slavery. We want to work with the
Wisconsin Historical Society on the legacy and bringing attention to the legacy of the abolition of slavery and freedom in Wisconsin. Some
states put out historical markers. In Florida, we had the Rosewood marker put up to acknowledge that.”
      Also on Meyers’ agenda is to work with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism to promote the Juneteenth celebrations in Milwaukee and
Madison and to use Juneteenth as an economic development tool in the state. On a national level, Meyers is working with U.S. Senator
Roland Burris (D-IL) to have the federal government declare Juneteenth as a national holiday on a par with Flag Day and Patriot Day.
While it was a long journey to get Juneteenth declared a state holiday, the journey to make it a meaningful state holiday has just begun.
Clockwise from upper left: Dr. Ron Meyers, chair of
the National Juneteenth Day Committee (r)
addresses the audience while State Senator
Spencer Coggs looks on; National Juneteenth Day
Committee board members Mona Adams Winston (l-r),
Dr. Ron Mayers and Edith Adekunle Wilson;
Governor James Doyle address the audience;
Governor Doyle signs the bill as Senator Spencer
Coggs (l-r), Mac Weddle, Northcott Neighborhood
House executive director, Mona Adams Winston and
Dr. Ron Meyers look on.