History of Juneteenth in Chicago

June 19th, 1865 marks the day that Maj. General Gordon Granger passed down orders in
Galveston, Texas that all slaves in the state were to be freed. This day comes two and a half years
after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was hard to enforce so the 1865 June 19th
date marked a more concrete end of slavery in America. The day, which turned into a celebration
known as “Juneteenth” is well documented in Galveston and Texas as a whole with barbeques,
parades, poetry readings, and games. A June 1939 article even described a Texas prison
Juneteenth celebration with a baseball game and musical performances. What’s not as
documented are Juneteenth celebrations in the northern states, more specifically Illinois. One of
the first recorded mentions of Juneteenth in an Illinois newspaper is from a Champaign Times
article in 1950 noting that many in Illinois instead celebrated “Emancipation Day” on September
22nd which marks Lincoln’s order giving the confederacy 90 days to lay down their guns.

Skipping ahead some decades, reports are conflicting about when formal celebrations of
Juneteenth started taking roots in Chicago. According to some sources, there were large parades
that ended at Rainbow beach on the South Side in the 70’s and 80’s. This would make sense on a
historical timeline, because many civil rights activists in the 60’s learned about Juneteenth from
Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s March which arrived in D.C. on June 19th, 1968. Many of
these activists reinvigorated the holiday throughout the North from that day forward. What we
know for sure is that in 1990 William Wiggins, author of a book about emancipation celebrations
in America, was living in Chicago and organized a Juneteenth celebration that year at the
Chicago Historical Society. In their 1990 article, The Chicago Tribune proclaimed that “This
year Chicagoans will have their own public Juneteenth celebration for the first time.” Whether or
not this is true, it is still a notable moment in the history of Juneteenth in Chicago.

Mr. William Wiggins said that when growing up in Texas, Juneteenth celebrations consisted of “an outdoor
celebration with barbecues and baseball and often the emancipation proclamation is read and
there’s an inspirational speech. The dominant themes are patriotism and brotherhood, that we are
Americans and part of this country.” He brought these customs with him to Chicago.Throughout
the 1990’s, there is record of the city of Decatur, Illinois having an annual Juneteenth celebration
organized by the African-American Cultural & Genealogical Society of Illinois. In Decatur, they
crowned a Mr. and Mrs. Juneteenth. In 2002, local African-American radio station WVON
hosted a celebration at Mandrake Park near the Bronzeville neighborhood with then Alderman
Dorothy Tillman and five miles south other informal celebrations sprouted up at Rosenblum
Park. 2002 also marked the year Mayor Daley Jr. acknowledged the holiday in a city council
meeting and urged all Chicagoans to celebrate. Throughout the 2000’s these celebrations at parks
along with the Dusable Museum and Chicago Historical Society became more regular and more
and more people knew about the holiday, but still mostly on the South and West Side.

Juneteenth in Chicago Today

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the protests that followed led to a revitalized
spotlight on not only police shootings of Black Americans, but also the Black experience in
America as whole. Google searches of Juneteenth skyrocketed last year and many states have
since passed legislation marking it as an official history. This year, J.B. Pritzker made it an
Illinois State Holiday meaning all State offices are closed. This year all across the city expect to
see the red, green, and black colors of the Pan-African flag as the pandemic subsides allowing
people to celebrate. 2021 will likely be the most widespread recognition of Juneteenth the city of
Chicago has ever seen.

Controversy

Although the growing nationwide recognition of Juneteenth is seen as a good sign by
many, many others argue that politicians are pushing it as a symbolic replacement of real change
that Black American’s wanted to see after the upheaval of 2020. Many are tired of seeing
politicians push aside demands for police accountability and a further breaking down of forms of
systemic racism in America in favor of easier changes like acknowledging Juneteenth and giving
everyone a day off. Some have also brought up America’s system of paying prisoners pennies for
forced work as a form of modern enslavement thus complicating Juneteenth being an end to
enslavement in America. Clearly there is more work to do, but for Juneteenth 2021, hopefully
people can safely return to enjoying traditions of the past and grow new ones for future
generations of Chicagoans.

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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