Madison Celebrates America’s “Second Independence Day”: Celebrating 35 Years (Part 1 of 2)


The Juneteenth Committee: First Row: Corinda Rainey-Moore (l-r), Annie Weatherby-Flowers, Tori Pettaway Second Row: Sonia Spencer from MMSD, Shari Davis from Madison Blues Fest, Eugene Crisler Back: Rachmaan Weatherby

by Jonathan Gramling

The city of Milwaukee was the first Northern city to host a Juneteenth Day celebration back on June 19, 1972. Back then, Milwaukee’s Black community was doing relatively well — especially in comparison to today — before Milwaukee began losing its industrial base. And Juneteenth grew into a huge celebration.

“The kids in my neighborhood would all got to Teutonia Avenue because that’s where the parade would go past from the Vel Phillips Library on Center,” said Annie Weatherby-Flowers. “It would go down to Burleigh. We would sit on the curve and watch the parade. We would get together later and we would go to Third Street and eat corn, walk around, ride the ponies and things like that. We would listen to the different kinds of music along Third Street. I used to love to go to the church. There were several churches along Third Street. There would be singing and having a good time. Eating roasted corn, that is what Juneteenth looked like. And the older I got, it became the place where you would see your friends who went off to college. Juneteenth would be the first time that you would see people. It was wonderful. It was the first place that I took my baby, Rocky, when he was almost three-months old. It was just a place of coming together for celebration.”

When Weatherby-Flowers moved to Madison in the late 1980s and took a position with the Madison Inner-City Council on Substance Abuse, she took note that there was no Juneteenth celebration in Madison. And she felt it was important for the children.

“It was important to have something that my kids could remember when they and other kids got older in Madison who were struggling in all areas of life,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “It was one place that we all would be one. On Juneteenth, you can be a billionaire or you can be someone who is just struggling from pay check to pay check or someone who is living on a fixed income. The celebration is connected to you as well. So it is that sense of unity we try to achieve, a sense of self-determination.”

And so the subject of Juneteenth came up when Weatherby-Flowers was having lunch with Diane Winfrey who was the executive director of MICCSA at the time.

“The first Juneteenth resulted from a conversation that I had over lunch with Diane Winfrey,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “We were talking about the difference between Madison and Milwaukee for people of color in terms of the shared legacies and connectedness. Most people came here at that time to go to college and then you had    South Madison and Mt. Zion Baptist Church folks who had longevity. But they were kind of disconnected in a way. And then we were separated geographically and economically. We needed a place where all of us were the same and we could come together. I said, ‘We need a Juneteenth.’ Diane said, ‘Yeah, that would be good. What do you think about it?’ I said, ‘I will do the research and get all of that and send it back through.’ She said, ‘Run with it.’ And that’s what I did. I pulled together a committee. Mona and John Winston were still married and they were part of the first committee. It was Isadore Knox, Ed Holmes, Sam Hill, Rose Johnson, Diane, myself, and Cheryl Knox. We pulled in the Pan-Hellenic Council. Now they call it the Divine Nine. And so we had the first Juneteenth with $1,500. Park Bank gave us $500. W.T. Rogers gave us $1,000. The first Juneteenth was held in Penn Park with $1,500.”

It was a success and so it was agreed that Juneteenth would be held the next year as well.

“The next year when we called the first planning committee meeting, only Mona and I showed up,” Weatherby-Flowers recalled. “That’s how we became Ms. Juneteenth with heavy bags on the subway. It took all of our community resources to make Juneteenth happen. And because of the role I had at MICCSA, I was on a number of different committees. I was aware of all of the funding sources in Madison. And so we started writing letters and we started pulling it together. And so we pulled together a 15-member committee that stayed together for years. And so Pastor David Smith started helping us incorporate the church component. We started working with Parks and learned how to keep it in Penn Park. We started creating fundraising opportunities. Mona worked for ATT and was part of a union. They were able to support us with volunteers. Even when they split the phone company apart, they still gave us strong support.”

It was through the determination of Adams Winston and Weatherby-Flowers that Juneteenth continued on and began to grow. It all came down to commitment to community solidarity.

“And then we incorporated the parade,” Weatherby-Flowers said. “And we just continued to grow, to include more, to expand where we could look at areas of significance. That’s why we have the Church and Heritage tents.

And it was about more than entertainment. It was about providing whatever would make the Black community and its members whole.

“We were struggling with the crack cocaine epidemic and the AIDS epidemic at the time. We wanted to bring resources to our community because we were socially, geographically and economically isolated. And so bring the folks together was important so that people could be connected with those services. They could find them at Juneteenth. And those who provided those services were involved in companies could be resources and contacts to those organizations.”

Adams Winston and Weatherby-Flowers knew that Madison had a lot of talented Black people livoing within its borders. And so they focused on local talent to provide an afternoon of celebration, whether it was gospel music or drill teams. Madison has talent.

“Of course the churches were very involved and we had local talent like Fresh Force,” Weatherby-Flowers recalled. “And at that time, Mt. Zion had a singing group that had Squeaky, Leotha Stanley’s first wife and others. We had a lot of local talent that would perform. And then the agencies like the South Madison Neighborhood Center and NIP dancers would have programming and help us with the kids. It was really the community coming together. And it is still the community coming together, carrying resources, carrying information, providing access and food and celebration. Most important of all, it increases awareness and knowledge. It ensures that we had the ability to be self-determined. Our mission was to make the Black community a more effective part of the total Madison community through self-determination. And as we went, we added Black resilience to our mantra because it was how we bounce back and move forward and the ability to use faith, community, family and education as a means of bouncing back because we were connected, because we did have support, because we had a grandmother. It was all connected to that process.”