La Crosse celebrates the first federally recognized Juneteenth commemoration


Photo retrieved by Sophie Byrne.

Sophie Byrne, Social Justice Reporter

This weekend marked the first federally recognized commemoration of June 19th, 1865—better known as Juneteenth—, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was officially enforced in Galveston, Texas, one of the last places where slaves were owned. Juneteenth has since been celebrated as a day to honor, remember, and celebrate emancipation, abolitionists who fought for freedom, and black history and culture. President Biden signed legislation on June 17, to proclaim Juneteenth a national holiday, just in time for the 155th anniversary.  

In accordance with this federal proclamation, The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse raised the official Juneteenth Flag on Friday, June 18, at midday. UWL students received an email from university marketing & communications Friday morning to invite them to the flag-raising, as well as to share information on La Crosse’s community events celebrating the holiday. Those events included three free showings of Disney Pixar’s Soul at The Rivoli throughout the day on Friday, as well as an all-day community fair at Riverside Park on Saturday. These events were hosted by local non-profit organizations B.L.A.C.K. (Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge), Hope Restores, The Enduring Families Project, Black Student Leaders, LIT (Leaders Igniting Transformation), and UWL’s Black Student Unity. They were also sponsored in part by UWL’s Division for Diversity & Inclusion.  

Vice-Chancellor of Diversity & Inclusion Barbara Stewart opened the flag-raising ceremony on Friday by thanking attendees and participants and then introducing Assistant Director of UWL’s Upward Bound pre-college program, Jazz Holland, to give a ceremonial speech introducing the flag and commemorating Juneteenth. Holland is also a co-founder and secretary of B.L.A.C.K. “Today is a day for remembering our past, celebrating our ancestors, and acknowledging the moment that we became free of the chains of slavery,” said Holland. “Even though we are no longer in those chains and bondage, there are still different forms of racism that are going on. There is still a lot of work to do, and we must be willing to go out and do that work.” 

Holland was able to speak to The Racquet and describe the significance of Juneteenth and its flag. “When I came to UWL in 2010, I noticed right away that it was a predominantly white town. Even just trying to find black people on campus was sometimes hard, but once I found them and linked up with organizations such as Black Student Unity in OMSS, I was able to find my community.”  

According to Holland, her experiences with finding community are some of what drives her work at Upward Bound and in D&I. “From there I was able to realize the larger community [of La Crosse]. There are more resources here than we think. There’s a lot of work to do in expanding resources and providing things like beauty salons, clothing, restaurants, but the people that are here have been able to bond together. That’s the same thing we try to do in D&I and in Upward Bound, is just bringing those underrepresented populations and communities together to say we’re here, we support one another, and we’re willing to do the work to provide those resources and provide an inclusive environment for everyone to succeed. We say freedom and justice for all, and this is how we do that, by celebrating each other and celebrating our differences.” 

Chancellor Joe Gow, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Vitaliano Figueroa, Director of University Centers Kyle Burke, Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Bob Hetzel, and Pride Center director Will Van Roosenbeek were in attendance for the flag raising, among other administrators, faculty, staff, and students.  

On Saturday, hundreds of La Crosse community members turned out to attend the Juneteenth fair in Riverside Park, from 12:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The fair spanned the length of the park, with various educational booths and community organizations turning out to take part in the celebration. Food and beverages were given out throughout the day, and children were able to participate in games to win tickets and prizes. Local black musicians and entertainment also performed from Riverside’s new bandshell. Local schools, libraries, churches, and other non-profit organizations such as The Center and Planned Parenthood, as well as La Crosse County Democrats, Viterbo University and Western Technical College, local black-owned businesses such as Melanin Beauty Bar, among many others all hosted booths.  

Viterbo students Laura Weidemann and Megan Messa, along with their friend Krithika Siva, all sat to have their portrait painted by local artist Mary Lou Ferguson. According to Weidemann, she heard about the fair through Instagram. “I follow a lot of organizations that give voices to POC, and so I heard about it through Black Student Leaders. Viterbo also posted something about it, so we’ve seen teachers and students here today [from Viterbo].”  

“We’ve been around to all the booths, and it’s really cool to see all the fun things they have. We played badminton at one and that was fun,” said Siva.  

Messa said that her favorite booth was painting, and Weidemann mentioned that she had seen police officers playing frisbee with fair-goers. “There’s also little tickets being given out if you win at certain booths, and then you can take them to others,” said Messa. 

“It’s pretty integrated which is really nice,” said Siva, “I’m glad we have it here today.”  

To learn more about Juneteenth and how you can celebrate and honor black voices in the La Crosse community, readers can visit B.L.A.C.K.’s website, and follow Black Student Leaders on Instagram