More than 200 people of all ages and a wide range of complexions celebrated Juneteenth Monday evening at Carson Park.
The turnout was almost certainly the largest in the 18 years that Juneteenth has been celebrated here. The event is designed to bring area residents together to celebrate a mutual commitment to a more united but diverse community enriched by the differences among its members.
State Rep. Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire) noted the origins of the Juneteenth observance, which dates back to June 19, 1865 in Galveston, TX when Union soldiers landed there. They brought with them the news that the Civil War was over and that former slaves were free.
“America was reborn” there, Wachs said, but quickly added that the façade of equality soon gave way to a different reality.
“The struggle for equality rages on but the battlefield has changed,” he said.
“Wisconsin now epitomizes some of the worst aspects of racial inequality,” he added, citing such examples as its having the highest black male incarceration rate in the country.
“It’s time to acknowledge that this is a problem right here in Wisconsin,” he said. “This is a crisis that we must confront.”
Wachs challenged the audience to get involved in making sure that “equality before the law” also translates into “equality in our society” – a goal he said hasn’t been achieved but one that is possible.
“This is a job for all of is working together,” not just for the government, he said. “We must always remember we are one community.”
David Shih, a nationally recognized expert on diversity and a member of the UW-Eau Claire English faculty, spoke about his experiences growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants, briefly in California and later in Texas. He said it wasn’t until he was in college that he read his first book by a black author and began to realize that he had been shielded from important aspects of American society, including institutional racism.
“Black writers taught me the difference between what was real and what was fantasy,” he said.
Shih added that Juneteenth is about authentic multicultural communities like Eau Claire but it also commemorates the struggle of people for the freedom not to be white.
Eau Claire’s Juneteenth celebration is coordinated by the Uniting Bridges Organization, an educational group that combines the former Juneteenth and Martin Luther King Day committees. Its commitment to bridging racial differences in the community seemed to be reflected in the diversity of the Carson Park crowd.
The main sponsors of this year’s Juneteenth event were the Chancellor’s office and Affirmative Action office at UW-EC, Chippewa Valley Technical College Diversity Resources and the city of Eau Claire.