ST. PETERSBURG — Live music, arts and crafts, and an exhibition baseball game to honor the Negro Leagues are on the program for this year's Juneteenth celebration, an annual event commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery.
But to hear Faye Dowdell tell it, the biggest attraction at this year's event is the books.
In the five years that Dowdell has headed the annual celebration, she has handed out picture books to children. The first year, 300 books telling the story of Juneteenth set her back $4,200 — far too much for an event that never has made a profit.
The solution was to write one herself. "History is history — you can't change it," Dowdell said, laughing. "I said, 'I think I can write something a little cheaper.' "
The result was a picture book that tells the story of Juneteenth in short, simple sentences geared toward early readers. Dowdell will give away 300 at this Saturday's event, thanks to a grant from the Early Learning Council.
"It's a very colorful book with the very simplest way of telling what Juneteenth is," she said.
Anthony Ricks, the local artist who illustrated Dowdell's book, said he's excited to see his work published and plans to sell some of his own work at the event.
"It's important — it's part of history," he said. "They don't really teach a lot of this in school."
The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865 — the day Union troops marched into Galveston, Texas, and told slaves living there they were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. Since then, Juneteenth has become a celebration of African-American culture and community.
Dowdell, a former Air Force specialist who turned to volunteer work after a brain injury forced her to leave the military, signed on to organize the city's Juneteenth celebration when the event's previous director quit five years ago, leaving Juneteenth with no funding, no sponsors and almost no chance of survival.
"I heard on the radio that the Juneteenth coordinator had quit and they were canceling Juneteenth," she said. "They don't cancel the Fourth of July — how are they going to cancel Juneteenth?"
Dowdell invested $10,000 of her own money in the project, taking business classes to learn how to keep the organization afloat and writing letters to potential sponsors.
Five years later, the festival is thriving — featuring not only arts and crafts and live entertainment, but community services from housing assistance to job counseling to free health screenings.
"We haven't made a profit for me to get my money back," she said. "But when you see those kid's faces out there, it's all worth it."
Reach Aubrey Whelan at [email protected] or (727) 893-8316.