Juneteenth celebration returns to St. Petersburg on Saturday

Paulette Jones of St. Petersburg, at the St. Petersburg Dream Center in Midtown, has organized Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Paulette Jones of St. Petersburg, at the St. Petersburg Dream Center in Midtown, has organized Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration.

ST. PETERSBURG — Paulette Jones is venturing where others, similarly determined and socially conscious, have gone before.

The Midtown resident is organizing Saturday's Juneteenth celebration. Purists might recognize that the event is slightly behind schedule. Juneteenth — which commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States — actually falls on June 19.

That doesn't bother Jones.

"I just want people to come out where they can connect and feel proud of who they are and get to know their neighbors and their community leaders," she said.

"We did not have Juneteenth last year and I thought it was a tragedy."

The city is co-sponsoring the festival at Campbell Park.

"We were very excited to hear that Paulette was interested in breathing new life into this event," said Michael Jefferis, parks and recreation superintendent. "The importance of this event is very obvious and it's a great opportunity for celebration."

As Jones has discovered, though, pulling off such a celebration takes money and a vast effort. The retired social worker said she had to delay the event to gather sponsors.

Before Jones, there was Faye Dowdell, who began organizing Juneteenth in 2007, appalled that there would be none that year.

"I thought, how can they cancel Juneteenth? They don't cancel July Fourth,'' she said a few years later.

Dowdell, a retired postal inspector and military special agent, even wrote a picture book telling the story of Juneteenth to give away at the festivities. But her hard work and good intentions were not enough to sustain the celebration, so she handed the project to another volunteer, who was supposed to organize it last year. The event never came off.

Juneteenth commemorates the events of June 19, 1865. The date marks more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, where slaves there learned that the Civil War had ended and they were free. The date is an official state holiday in Texas.

In St. Petersburg, Juneteenth celebrations got their start in 1992 with Jeanie Blue, who ran the event for 14 years. More than 5,000 people gathered for the festival one year. Blue held her last event in 2006, announcing weeks after that she had grown discouraged and that the responsibility had become stressful and a financial burden. A few years later, Dowdell would give the same reasons for giving up her role in the event.

Jones, 60, who grew up in Midtown and describes herself as a single mother who is about to send her son to law school, is undaunted. She simply wants to do something for her neighborhood, she said.

"I feel I have an investment in this community. I want to be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves," said the woman who aspires to be on the City Council, has been a mentor in the city's Mentors and More program, and is a charter member of the new Midtown Rotary Club. She recently formed an organization to help at-risk youngsters.

Juneteenth is just one of the events that group, the Midtown Celebrity Club, is organizing, she said.

Several groups will participate in the celebration this weekend, including St. Petersburg's chapter of the Black Nurses Association, Neighborly Senior Services and the Pinellas County Health Department. Religious and other organizations such as the St. Petersburg Dream Center will be joined by vendors selling food and other items.

"From what I see, because of the years we have had economic despair, people have had other focuses instead of community events.

"I'm trying to bring the spark back."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

IF YOU GO

Juneteenth Freedom Day Festival

11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Campbell Park, 601 14th St. S, St. Petersburg. Free.

Juneteenth celebration returns to St. Petersburg on Saturday 06/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 5:58pm]

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