Juneteenth 2012 co-chairs Jessica Strong (left) and Ronnicia Johnson-Walker
A character actor depicts a historical Juneteenth scene
Two young ladies from last year's Juneteenth Celebration at Penn Park
Girls gather at the Juneteenth Heritage Tent
Since 1990, the annual Juneteenth Celebration at Penn Park — the largest, family-oriented, African American celebration in Dane County — has always been planned Mona Winston and Annie Weatherby.
This year, however, two young ladies who have been active members in the Madison community — Ronnicia Johnson-Walker and Jessica Strong — have taken on the daunting task of co-chairing the event as the torch has been passed to the younger generation. The 23nd annual Juneteenth Day Celebration titled “Juneteenth 2012…Reclaiming our Collective Voice” will take place at Penn Park on Fisher Street in the heart of South Madison on Saturday, June 16.
“The transition is coming along. People are still in the mindset of 'Annie and Mona' but I think that we're slowly getting our name out there and letting people know that Ronnicia and I are the new co-chairs and that there is a new generation that is taking over,” Strong says in an interview with The Madison Times.
“Juneteenth is one of those events that brings everybody together,” Johnson-Walker adds. “It's just a great opportunity to meet people and to network. There are a lot of people that come. If you're not really familiar with Madison or you don't go to many events, this is a great first event to go to. It's a kick-off to the summer.”
The annual Juneteenth Celebration promotes empowerment and self-actualization for children, young adults, and families by exposing them to visual, spoken, and dramatized information and other mediums that showcase the vast contributions of Black people in America. Johnson-Walker worked with Juneteenth last year as a representative for the Urban League of Greater Madison. “I worked at the Kujichagulia information tent and got the Madison alumnae chapter [of Delta Sigma Theta sorority] involved with that,” she remembers. “I also helped Miss Annie [Weatherby] with organizing the volunteers for the day and assisted her with many different things.
“From there, she asked if I would co-chair with someone this year and I told her I wouldn't mind doing it — not realizing how much work it was,” Johnson-Walker adds with a smile. “There are so many different people and parts involved in putting Juneteenth together and there's so much history behind it. There's a lot that goes into making Juneteenth the great event that is.”
Johnson-Walker is no stranger to planning big events. She has been the chair of Delta Sigma Theta’s Heart & Soul Scholarship Fundraiser the past couple of years organizing the sorority’s largest fundraiser. Strong, for her part, has worked with the King Coalition and was very active in planning the MLK Holiday events this past year. She also has played big roles in organizing events for S.S. Morris Church. Weatherby is an ad-hoc member of the King Coalition and felt like Strong would be a great successor for her as the Juneteenth Celebration co-chair. “I was happy to be a part of it,” Strong says. “I didn't realize at first how much was involved in an event like Juneteenth and if I would have the time...but I knew that it would be a great experience.”
The two twentysomething ladies have been planning for months the 2012 Juneteenth Celebration that will once again feature exhibits, soul food, music, performances, kids' events, and a whole lot more in a variety of different areas throughout Penn Park including the Heritage Tent, Teen Tent, Children's Tent, Church Tent, and Main Stage.
“Sarita Thomas [from Boys & Girls Club of Dane County], who is coordinating the Children's Tent, will have all kinds of things planned for the kids that will incorporate elements of Juneteenth... the kids will be learning and I think that will be an important piece,” Strong says.
“The Women In Focus will also be donating books for the kids as they do every year,” Johnson-Walker adds. “We will have all kinds of activities and performances planned for the event.”
The women say that they plan on keeping it simple for the transition year — as simple as organizing the largest family-oriented, African American celebration in Dane County can be.
“In the future, I think you'll see more things and some new twists,” Strong says. “But for this year we'll probably have a Juneteenth similar to past Juneteenths. Not too much new. We do have some ideas for 2013.”
Juneteenth started in Madison in 1990, when a group of African American community leaders, inspired by the vision of Annie Weatherby (back then Weatherby-Hayes), collaborated with the Madison Inner City Council on Substance Abuse to implement the Juneteenth Celebration. From the beginning, Juneteenth Day has been a wholesome, drug- and alcohol-free event that children and families could enjoy, with the mission of uniting Madison's Black community in a positive way.
“What we really want to do is what Miss Annie envisioned and bring together all of the African American community here in Madison across generational lines and across sociological backgrounds just to celebrate and to learn about their heritage and why we have Juneteenth,” Strong says. “Juneteenth is more about eating and dancing and music... we're learning about who we are and how we got here.”
With two youthful co-chairs, the planners believe that it's important to get more young people involved in Juneteenth.
“Being from Milwaukee, Juneteenth is really big — it shuts down streets and blocks,” Johnson-Walker says. “For me, Juneteenth is really important to get the word out to the younger generation. I think there are many people in their mid-20s and younger who don't really understand the importance of Juneteenth and what that date means as far as freeing the slaves who didn't know they were free.”
Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of the last African American slaves on June 19, 1865. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but the message of freedom was not enforced in Texas until Maj. Gen. George Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, with soldiers to ensure the freedom of the last 250,000 slaves. A special Independence Day celebrated by African Americans, it is centered on family gatherings with special food, storytelling, sports, and games.
Juneteenth is the oldest African American celebration in the United States and is celebrated in more than 200 cities. While it's an African American-focused day, the whole community is invited to attend this annual event that is usually very diverse.
“I think that cross-culturally there will be something for everyone. I think the food by itself is a tremendous experience,” Johnson-Walker says. “The Heritage Tent, the Teen Tent, Children's Tent, Church Tent, Main Stage ... There's just so much for everybody to experience of every culture — it's not just an African American event. It's something that all cultures should experience and participate in.”
“In each of those areas that Ronnica just listed there are huge opportunities for education and for people outside of the African American community to learn about the different aspects of our heritage,” Strong adds.
All of the festivities will once again get started with the annual Juneteenth Parade at 11 a.m. beginning at the Fountain of Life Church and ending in Penn Park. The parade will depict historical scenes using character actors and will feature young people representing the neighborhood centers throughout Dane County who will create banners and routines.
“Annie and Mona have created a tremendous tradition at Juneteenth and we want to continue that,” Johnson-Walker says. “We want to continue to bring in more people from the community. We're looking to have a successful event. We want people to really enjoy themselves and we want to have a great turnout.”
The 23nd annual Juneteenth Day Celebration will take place at Penn Park on Fisher Street in the heart of South Madison on Saturday, June 16, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.