Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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United in freedom: Eau Claire gathers to commemorate end of U.S. slavery

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    Eau Claire Juneteenth organizer Beryle Middleton addresses the crowd during the community celebration Tuesday evening at Carson Park. View more photos at

    Staff photos by Steve Kinderman
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    Nine-year-old Amina Perkins reads a portion of the Emancipation Proclamation Tuesday during the annual Eau Claire Juneteenth celebration in Carson Park.

    Staff Photo by Steve Kinderman
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    UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus Dale Taylor delivers the keynote address, titled “Lessons I Learned the Hard Way,” Tuesday at the Eau Claire Juneteenth celebration in Carson Park.

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Juneteenth, the holiday that recognizes the historic day the last 200,000 slaves in the United States received notification of their freed status, is “not a black holiday. It’s an American holiday.”

That’s according to Donald Rosby, the emcee for Eau Claire’s Juneteenth celebration, which he said was meant to bring people together to recognize unity, achievement and community.

June 19, 1865, is recognized as Juneteenth, the day news of their freedom came to the last of the slaves — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

“Let me put this in perspective for you,” Rosby said. “How many kids do we have here? Raise your hands, kids. I want you to imagine you having to do chores for 2½ years longer than your parents told you to. If you know somebody who’s incarcerated, that’s 2½ years longer in prison than they needed to be there. And for the rest of us ... think about if you could retire 2½ years early, but nobody told you.”

For the past 18 years, Eau Claire has been celebrating Juneteenth, even though it has only been a state holiday since 2009.

This year’s keynote speaker was UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus Dale Taylor, who delivered an address titled “Lessons I Learned the Hard Way.”

In his speech, Taylor touched on different lessons he’s learned throughout his life, from “define yourself” to “information is the greatest and most powerful weapon of all” to “don’t fit in.”

During his address, he mentioned his campaign against the media using race only to criminalize people of color without using it to celebrate them.

“Despite the fact that news reporters traditionally only verbalize race when portraying a black person in the profile of a pusher, a protester, an addict, a criminal, a truant or a vagrant,” Taylor said, “they should be exposing the public to the reality that the vast majority of black citizens are not on drugs or welfare and are successful, not only as athletes and entertainers, but also as proprietors, policemen, principals, pilots, parents, professors, producers, printers, programmers, politicians ...”

The list went on to end with corporate CEOs. 

Taylor spoke the names of several notable African-American people who have influenced society, from James Todd Smith, rapper LL Cool J’s real name, to Katherine Smith, one of the NASA scientists who inspired the 2017 movie “Hidden Figures.”

When only one or two people in the crowd raised their hands to confirm that they were familiar with these names, Taylor pointed out that there are people, pieces of information and accomplishments that go unrecognized. As a society, he said, we need to be critical of the information we receive and even the information we don’t receive because of the implications it can have.

Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, vice president of Uniting Bridges, the event’s organizer, said she was happy with the event and appreciated what Taylor had to say.

“We need to be reminded sometimes that the media stereotypes of African-Americans are not true. I am not the exception; I am actually the rule,” Ducksworth-Lawton said in response to Taylor’s keynote address. “We’re all the same under the skin.”

Others who spoke at the celebration included Eau Claire school board President Joe Luginbill, who recognized the event as one for celebration, commemoration and conversation. He also announced a scholarship program for students of color that will begin this upcoming school year and hopefully lead to a leadership program.

City Council Vice President Andrew Werthmann and County Board President Nick Smiar read proclamations by their respective political bodies recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth Day.

A group of area students read the Emancipation Proclamation, and Chaz Walton of the Eau Claire Police Department read Union General Gordon Granger’s “General Order #3,” the document that informed the last slaves of their emancipation.

State Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, sang Mahlia Jackson’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” and local band Irie Sol also performed.

Community members Sandra Wagner and Jerry Goss came to the Juneteenth celebration together. They were originally drawn to the event because they are familiar with the musicians in Irie Sol, but Wagner said it ended up being very informative.

“I had no idea what this was about,” Wagner said. “I was just saying to Jerry, ‘We can’t just sit and do nothing, and I feel so helpless.’ Gatherings like this is what we can do, because we get together, and we spread the word. One person counts. Our voices all count. Something like this is super important.”

Goss agreed, saying the event brought unity and understanding to the community.

Sitting through the event and listening to the speakers, Wagner said, served as inspiration for her to take action.

“I’m going to look for more events like this to participate in, maybe find a way to volunteer, because I feel like I need to participate,” Wagner said. “Sitting at home and being upset about it just isn’t working for me anymore.”

Winston Baker, another community member, said he had been to Juneteenth two or three times over the years but hadn’t been in years.

The primary reason Baker came this year was his friendship with the keynote speaker, who he said he enjoyed listening to.

“The obvious reason (people should come) is unity,” Baker said. “It brings us all together, especially at a time like this”

Ducksworth-Lawton estimated crowds at around 450 people, which is 150 people up from attendance last year. She said this is the largest crowd the Eau Claire event has seen so far in its 18 years of hosting this celebration.

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