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Juneteenth main, Ronnicia Johnson-Walker, Jessica Strong

Celebration co-chairwomen Ronnicia Johnson-Walker, right, and Jessica Strong cut the ribbon to begin Madison’s 23rd annual Juneteenth Day celebration Saturday at Penn Park on the South Side.

Music, food and a healthy dose of Gospel characterized Madison’s 23rd annual Juneteenth Day celebration.

Thousands gathered Saturday at Penn Park for the festivities that commemorate June 19, 1865, when the last slaves in the U.S. were freed. Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect two and a half years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863.

At the South Side park on this day, children waited their turn to play in the "bouncy house," young people teamed up for basketball, and adults chatted with friends and family. Music ranged from hip-hop to jazz to gospel.

"There’s a sense of community," said Donny Gray, of Madison, whose twin 9-year-old sons were focused on the food.

David took the two-fisted approach, working on an ear of corn in one hand and a snow cone in the other, while Derek put all his attention on a blue snow cone, slurping the syrupy melted ice shavings.

The day began with a morning parade down South Park Street to Penn Park. The "church tent" drew the biggest audience, as one preacher told the crowd to "find joy in the middle of storms of life," and "praise teams" danced and sang.

"It’s a very good message: believe in God, stay positive, stay stress-free," said Nicole McCann, of Madison, who had her children, ages 12, 6, and 3, in tow.

The theme for this year’s Juneteenth festival was "reclaiming our collective voice," said Ronnicia Johnson-Walker, co-chairwoman of the event with Jessica Strong.

Referring to both local and national concerns, from the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida to the controversy over voter identification rules, Johnson-Walker said it is time to "come collectively together and speak out for all injustices."

Also important, she said, is bringing together young and old so the Juneteenth celebration is "a cultural experience for all."

Terrance Williams, of Sun Prairie, said Juneteenth day is "one of those historical events that allows African-Americans to come together as a community. We remember history all the time. Whether we stop and focus on it is something different," he said.

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