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Tampa Bay has a new reason to celebrate Juneteenth

The day marking the end of slavery is now a federal holiday. But June 19 is already commemorated across Tampa Bay.
Layla Zephyrin, age 4, smiles after seeing her face painted by Isha Joseph during the Juneteenth Jam at the Northstar Academies on Saturday in St. Petersburg. Juneteenth was celebrated across Tampa Bay.
Layla Zephyrin, age 4, smiles after seeing her face painted by Isha Joseph during the Juneteenth Jam at the Northstar Academies on Saturday in St. Petersburg. Juneteenth was celebrated across Tampa Bay. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 19
Updated Jun. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — In the shadow of the Historic Manhattan Casino, where the likes of Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole once performed when “The Deuces” was the bustling main street of the Black community, there was a new reason to celebrate an old holiday on Saturday.

Tampa Bay celebrated this Juneteenth days after it became the nation’s newest federal holiday.

Dozens of Black-owned businesses set up tents lined up outside the event hall along 22nd Street S. The hum of food trucks and a DJ filled the air. Entrepreneurs sold everything from popcorn to hats, clothes and jewelry.

The Kali Kali dancers perform during the Juneteenth Jam at the Northstar Academies on Saturday in St. Petersburg.
The Kali Kali dancers perform during the Juneteenth Jam at the Northstar Academies on Saturday in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“It’s really big and now that it is a holiday, it really makes me happy,” said 13-year-old entrepreneur Jayden Morrison, who was selling spices for his own business, Jay’s Spice Palette.

Juneteenth is so named because of June 19, 1865, the day enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned they were to be freed. Federal troops freed Texas’ slaves, making it the last Confederate state to do so two months after the Confederacy surrendered and 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Earlier this week, President Joe Biden signed the law making June 19 a federal holiday.

Multiple celebrations took place in Tampa and St. Petersburg. And in Clearwater, a group of advocates began a voting rights tour at a Juneteenth festival to oppose Senate Bill 90, one of Florida’s new voting laws. This one imposes restrictions and conditions on drop boxes, vote-by-mail, third-party voter registration and providing food and water to those waiting in line to vote. A federal lawsuit challenging the law says it disproportionately affects Black, Latino, older and disabled voters.

Related: Juneteenth’s 156-year path to becoming a federal holiday: Here’s the history

Life coaches Janaye Hardy and Lola B. Morgan launched the Juneteenth Jam on Saturday at Northstar Academy of Pinellas in St. Petersburg after a successful Martin Luther King Jr. Day Expo during the celebration of that holiday in January. They planned for up to 50 vendors and raised almost $2,000 for a scholarship for a local high schooler.

The scholarship was one of the most meaningful parts of the celebration, Morgan said.

“The pandemic has been hard on a lot of different people in so many different ways,” she said, “especially our children.”

Hardy said she hoped to see an outpouring of support from the community on this Juneteenth.

“I hope the impact is just a standing celebration and moment in time for us, as community, us as African Americans, to realize our impact,” she said.

While many festivals marked the historic holiday, Juneteenth hasn’t always been widely celebrated in the Tampa Bay area.

The Rev. Willie G. Dixon, an 89-year-old Tampa native, said he helped put the city’s first Juneteenth event in 2012 at the H.O.P.E. Church on N 22nd Street. They hosted up to 200 people then, he said, and they have kept the celebrations going each year through his organization, The Coach Foundation, Inc.

”I went to a Black college, Tennessee State University, and they did not teach us anything about Juneteenth, about the Tulsa Massacre,” Dixon said. “These are things that are hidden from our people. So I felt a need, because I am a former school teacher, to educate about it here in Tampa and in the state of Florida.”

Tampa Old City Hall shines in traditional Pan African colors on Friday and Saturday evening to commemorate the importance of Juneteenth.
Tampa Old City Hall shines in traditional Pan African colors on Friday and Saturday evening to commemorate the importance of Juneteenth. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis, also born and raised in Tampa, recalled and appreciated Dixon’s Juneteenth celebrations.

”Tampa should know that African-American people’s lives should be valued,” said Lewis. “Tampa should know that we are part of this city. and when you say it’s a diverse city, it should be not just diverse on the surface but deep down within the soul, as well.”

A St. Petersburg native, 60-year-old Catherine Weaver didn’t begin celebrating Juneteenth until a few years ago. On Saturday, she ran a booth for her business, Uniquely Original Art Studio, at the business expo on 22nd Street S.

“Juneteenth is on a whole different level,” from other celebrations, said the life-long artist, who designed the “C” in the city’s Black Lives Matter street mural on Ninth Avenue S outside the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American.

“Juneteenth is actually the freedom of our emancipation, our freedom from slavery.”

LaDonna Butler founded The Well for Life, a counseling and mental health center serving people of color, and her organization helped sponsor the Juneteenth Jam. In the past, she celebrated Juneteenth with family. But now the community can celebrate it together.

“Before all of this, we spent time with our families, knowing our culture, knowing our history because we believed in naming for ourselves, spending time in rest and relaxation and celebration,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see it grow, not just within our home but throughout the whole community.”

Curtis Hixon Park shines in traditional Pan African colors on Friday and Saturday evening to commemorate the importance of Juneteenth.
Curtis Hixon Park shines in traditional Pan African colors on Friday and Saturday evening to commemorate the importance of Juneteenth. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]