Faye Dowdell was stationed in Germany the first time she participated in Juneteenth, the annual celebration commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the United States. It was a gala event with a military band and fireworks.
No surprise then that when Dowdell took over as organizer of the St. Petersburg event, her vision was of a sky ablaze with fireworks.
"When I saw how much they cost, I said, we won't have fireworks yet,'' she laughed.
This year's celebration at Campbell Park on Saturday promises entertainment, African drummaking and head wrapping for children, food, a breakfast to honor fathers and other activities.
This is the fourth year Dowdell, 59, is coordinating the event. The retired postal inspector and military special agent got involved after learning that the celebration had been canceled because the longtime organizer quit.
"I thought, how can they cancel Juneteenth? They don't cancel July Fourth,'' Dowdell said.
Freedom Day, or Juneteenth, began in Texas, where it has been celebrated as a state holiday on June 19 since 1980. The occasion is rooted in the events of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major Gen. Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and slaves were free. This was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In a White House statement marking the celebration during his first months in office, President Barack Obama noted that Juneteenth "serves as a time for reflection and appreciation.'' He added that African-Americans had helped to build the nation "brick by brick" and contributed to its growth "even when rights and liberties were denied to them.''
Dowdell grew up in St. Petersburg during segregation. "I worked at Orange Blossom Cafeteria. I could work there, but I couldn't even eat there,'' she recalled.
For her, canceling Juneteenth was not an option. In the years since she began coordinating the free event, however, she has found that it is a major undertaking.
"It takes me a year to put the money together to pay the bills, rent the tables and chairs, and rent the sound system,'' she said.
The celebration costs about $55,000, Dowdell said. The Juneteenth organization makes money by renting tents to vendors and organizations and holding fundraisers like the cruise being planned for next year, she said. This year's event is being co-sponsored with the city of St. Petersburg and supported by organizations including Bright House, Eckerd College, Publix Super Markets Charities, Urban Development Solutions and several churches.
The Saturday program will begin with prayer and Lift Every Voice and Sing, known as the "negro national anthem," and a rereading of the general's order from 1865. Gospel group Haiti's Sound of Praise will perform in the morning, followed by the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church drumline and color guard at noon. Entertainment also will be provided by LadySoul and the Jazz Futures Band.
The weekend's celebration will conclude with a worship service Sunday at Mount Zion Progressive.
"We need to remind the community that God gave us the exodus from bondage,'' Dowdell said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.