Juneteenth fests grow but still seek recognition
By ERIC STIRGUS and AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times,
Stephanie Hall likes to come to Ridgecrest's annual Juneteenth festival.
The games are fun, the fried fish is tasty and there usually is a big crowd on hand.
But with a hint of regret in her voice, Hall, a 16-year-old from Clearwater, says she does not know much about why Juneteenth is celebrated.
"I've heard about it a lot. I've been to the celebrations. But I didn't know what they were for," said Hall, who will be a junior at Palm Harbor University High School this fall.
People involved with local events, including one Saturday at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg, say most people know little or nothing about Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery.
Juneteenth is rarely mentioned in public schools. Until the 1980s, it was little noticed outside Texas, where it has special significance.
But event organizers think they are making headway in spreading the gospel of Juneteenth. The number of groups coordinating celebrations across the country has increased from about 130 in 1994 to about 160 this year, according to the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage Inc.
And Juneteenth -- the oldest known celebration of slavery's end -- is now formally recognized in six states, including Florida. In Texas, it is a paid holiday.
The celebration dates to June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that all slaves were free. The news reached Texas more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and more than two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union army.
A large crowd attended Saturday's Juneteenth celebration in St. Petersburg, which included music, barbecue, prayer and appearances by local officials.
About 200 people were expected at a Juneteenth parade and celebration in Ridgecrest, a predominantly African-American neighborhood near Largo.
Coordinators of both events say the crowds and volunteer support have grown steadily since the celebrations began. Still, they say, there is a lot of education to be done.
"I don't think a lot of people get it," said Barbara Price, a lead organizer of Saturday's events in Ridgecrest. "I've had a lot of people ask me, "What is Juneteenth?' "
"It's something that is swept under the rug," said Jeanie Blue, executive director of Juneteenth of Tampa Bay Inc., who organized Saturday's celebration at Campbell Park.
"You find more people with African descent who know about the Jewish Holocaust than the African holocaust," said Blue, referring to slavery.
Education officials say Juneteenth doesn't get much attention in local schools because of logistics. It is celebrated on or near June 19, when most students are on summer vacation.
Randy Lightfoot, a Pinellas County teacher, said it doesn't help that many of his colleagues are unfamiliar with Juneteenth's significance. He teaches its history in an African-American history class at St. Petersburg Junior College. The class is free for Pinellas County teachers.
Lightfoot, who is black, learned about Juneteenth growing up in Quincy, about 20 miles west of Tallahassee. It was celebrated on May 20, when it is thought that word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached that area. About five years ago, Lightfoot's friends and relatives who live in the area changed their celebration to June 19.
Juneteenth observance organizers say they began to notice a resurgence of interest about 15 years ago. They attribute it to rap artists who banged the drum of cultural awareness in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The availability of information about Juneteenth through the Internet was another factor, organizers say. The Web site http://www.juneteenth.com, for example, is a meeting place for Juneteenth activists nationwide.
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