ST. PETERSBURG — Families will gather today in parks, churches and backyards to commemorate the end of slavery and celebrate freedom.
Previous Juneteenth events have targeted mostly African-Americans, but this year organizers hope a more diverse crowd will show up.
Across the nation, Juneteenth organizers are trying to raise awareness for an observance they say has been pigeonholed for African-Americans. To attract a broader following, they are reaching out to corporate sponsors and political leaders, circulating petitions to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and organizing picnics, fish fries and office parties.
"We want to make Juneteenth a household name," said the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, chairman of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 that slavery in the United States effectively ended. At the time, more than two years had passed since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate states, but the news never reached slaves in Texas, who learned of it only after the Civil War ended.
For years, Texans remembered that day as Juneteenth. Eventually African-American communities across the United States quietly adopted the celebration.
Since 1996, Juneteenth events have more than doubled in Florida, from less than 10 to more than 30.
There are no firm numbers on how many events are held nationally, but organizers say anecdotally that they have received more calls from people interested in starting Juneteenth traditions this year than ever before.
"I got dozens of calls this week alone," said Cliff Robinson, founder of www.juneteenth.com.
And since 2000, more than two dozen states have recognized Juneteenth, celebrated on the third Saturday in June, as an official holiday or day of observance. In Florida, Juneteenth Day was recognized as a legal holiday in 1991.
"People are starting to realize that this is more than just an African-American celebration," Robinson said. "When you look at history you realize it took everyone to make things happen as they did, so everyone should celebrate how far we've come."
Locally, organizers say there are more Juneteenth celebrations today than ever before.
Wanda McCawthan has helped organize a Juneteenth celebration at Ridecrest Park in Largo for 13 years. She invites diverse groups such as the YMCA and the Indian Rocks Beach Rotary Club.
"For African-Americans, it's like Independence Day,'' she said. "We have a fish fry in the park and all the families come."
The civic group 100 Black Men of Tampa Bay held a Juneteenth banquet dinner in Tampa on Sunday. A diverse crowd of more than 150 people discussed the history of slavery and African-American accomplishments, including the rise of Barack Obama.
"Every year, we talk about expanding the Juneteenth event," said Keisha Pickett, a spokeswoman for 100 Black Men. "We want everyone to feel welcome."
On Thursday, WMNF-FM featured a lineup of African-Amercan musicians in honor of Juneteenth.
Faye Dowdell has held a Juneteenth celebration at Campbell Park in St. Petersburg since 2007 that features a diverse lineup of performers, including a gospel group and a martial arts presentation.
Despite Juneteenth's growing popularity, some organizers say the holiday will never truly be mainstream until it is recognized nationally.
Myers has collected signatures on behalf of his National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign since 1994.
He has had some successes. In 1997, Congress recognized Juneteenth Independence Day, but both President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have shied away from making the holiday official.
"Juneteenth is the celebration of America's second independence day," Myers said. "We are not asking for a paid national holiday. All we want is a special day of recognition."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.