"When we think about the civil rights movement, we think about Birmingham, Atlanta or New York," said event chairman Randy Lightfoot. "But significant contributions were made in our local community."
By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published February 27, 2004
LARGO - In 1961, Rosalie Peck did something extraordinary that would earn her a significant place in Pinellas County history, something that blacks just didn't do.
She enrolled in a psychology course at St. Petersburg Junior College.
That pivotal day in Perk's life will be featured in a Brown vs. the Board of Education exhibit detailing the history of desegregation from a local perspective at the Florida African American Heritage Celebration on Saturday at Heritage Village in Largo. The fifth annual festival at Pinewood Cultural Park offers a day of contemporary gospel by Belinda Womack, jazz by Eric Darius, food, storytellers, presentations and family activities.
Peck, now an author, will be there, and if you ask her, she'll tell you about that night in 1961.
Her heart beat fast as she made her way to her classroom that evening.
But as she hurried up to the second floor, she saw someone who relieved her anxiety.
"It was Michael Bennett, president of SPJC, at the top of the stairs," said Peck, one of the first two black students to attend the school. "He welcomed me and directed me to my class."
The students looked at her with interest, but not hostility, and Dr. Bill Bierbaum, her teacher, greeted her warmly, introducing her to the class.
The experience gave her "hopes for the future," she said, a full year before James Meredith became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi amid a campus riot, and three years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation at public facilities.
"When we think about the civil rights movement, we think about Birmingham, Atlanta or New York," said Randy Lightfoot, chairman of the event. "But significant contributions were made in our local community."
He said up to 10,000 people are expected to attend, drawn by not just by historical presentations, but entertainment that is varied and dynamic.
Bands such as the On Que Players, Goombi Ortiz and Bus Stop will play; storytellers Dr. Oscar Robinson, the Rev. Jimmy Keel, Lynn Holman and Thomas Reilly will discuss the lives of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen; NASA engineer Bruce Lockley will talk to children about science; and the Dondu Dole and Cold Joon dance troupes will perform throughout the day.
The festival is an offshoot of the North Pinellas County African American History Project sponsored by the Pinellas County Historical Society, Pinellas County Schools, the Pinellas County African American History Museum, Inc., and the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners.
According to its Web site, the project was created to collect, catalog, and preserve oral histories, photographs, artifacts, and other documentation pertaining to the history of the African American communities in Pinellas County over the last 125 years. The artifacts are stored at the Pinellas County African American History Museum.
The first Pinellas County African American Heritage Day, held in February 2000, attracted local residents who helped identify people in the collection of old photographs housed in the archives at Heritage Village.
Since then, it has turned into more of a jubilee which draws people from all walks of life.
"Every year we try to appeal to anyone who wants to come out," Lightfoot said. "The thing we like about this celebration is that we get diverse crowds. It's all about people. We kind of celebrate the human spirit."