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Juneteenth holiday gains wider acceptance in Tampa Bay

Though celebrated by many Black communities throughout the United States for over a century, Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday just last year.
Xavier Phillips Sr., left, and Xavier Phillips Jr., with XP Drummers, play Trinidad folk rhythms on their drums during the Sankofa Juneteenth Freedom Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at the Rebirth Event Park in Tampa.
Xavier Phillips Sr., left, and Xavier Phillips Jr., with XP Drummers, play Trinidad folk rhythms on their drums during the Sankofa Juneteenth Freedom Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at the Rebirth Event Park in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Jun. 19

Ts Madison Hinton first heard the word “Juneteenth” five years ago.

Hinton, a Black transgender woman and reality TV star from Florida, was almost 40 and had been engaged in activism throughout her career.

But the idea of a holiday celebrating the effective end of slavery in the United States was foreign to her.

“Juneteenth is something that lots of us African American people are really just coming into,” Hinton said. “Lots of us didn’t know about this stuff, because people kept that from us — just the same way it was kept from the slaves.”

This year, Hinton is a speaker at one of the weekend’s many events celebrating Juneteenth in Tampa Bay. The holiday, held every June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 that the last enslaved people in the United States received news of their freedom — 2½ years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Related: Where to celebrate Juneteenth

Though celebrated by many Black communities throughout the United States for over a century, Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday just last year, in the wake of public outcry over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota, by a police officer the previous summer.

For many in Tampa Bay, this Juneteenth is special — it comes amid growing mainstream recognition of the day’s significance, and it is the first time many residents will celebrate together in person since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“It gives us more things to celebrate,” said Hinton, who hosted an online Juneteenth event last year. “It’s like being re-freed all over again.”

The scent of barbecue was thick and smoky in the Saturday morning heat outside Queens Vision African Apparel in Tampa. Multicolored vendor tents, shady oak trees and shaved ice kept attendees of the “Sankofa Juneteenth Freedom Festival” cool as Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” played over the speaker.

”This is the day where we get together and celebrate each other, circulate the Black dollar and support each other’s businesses,” said Artisia Williams, 35, an author and motivational speaker selling several of her books at the festival. “I ask people, ‘What is Juneteenth?’ And I don’t give the answer. Because I want them to find it themselves — if we don’t know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it.”

“Sankofa” is a word from the Twi language of Ghana that roughly translates to “go back and get what was left behind” — a theme that is central to Juneteenth, said Regina Johnson, organizer of the event and owner of Queens Vision.

”It represents that which was lost and left behind — and there was so much that was lost and left behind,” she said. “This event is about bringing the small businesses in our community together — most do not have a space of their own yet — so our people can see that we do have the strength to build our own businesses.”

J. Carl Devine helped organize one of the first Juneteenth celebrations in St. Petersburg nearly three decades ago. Hundreds of residents attended what would become an annual gathering in Campbell Park, even then.

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“We didn’t need the approval of the United States to celebrate our freedom,” he said. “Even though it’s free-ish — we aren’t as free as others. But it’s a beginning. For me, Juneteenth is hope and opportunity and change.”

A speaker at The Factory’s “Shades of Pride” LGBTQ Juneteenth celebration on Sunday, Devine has mixed feelings about the holiday’s rising notoriety.

“Now, you’re seeing places like Walmart wanting to do Juneteenth stuff and selling memorabilia,” said Devine, now 79. “When those of us who create our own stuff that fits our community have to compete with these big stores, we lose our voice.”

As the only Black man teaching at an elite private school in Manhattan in the ‘60s, Devine, who is gay, watched the Stonewall uprising, a series of protests in 1969 that are largely considered a watershed moment in the modern movement for LGBTQ+ rights, unfold from a distance, fearing he’d lose his job if he attended. He’s happy that local Pride events acknowledge Juneteenth this year, though this, too, is bittersweet.

“I’ve been in this area for 30-some years, and this is the first time I’ve ever been invited to anything dealing with Pride,” Devine said. “But I think it’s really good that they’re recognizing same-gender-loving Black people, because we are discriminated against in the LGBTQ community, too.”

For Terri Lipsey Scott, Juneteenth’s growing popularity is an opportunity to reflect on how far Black Americans have come — and to preserve their history for future Tampa Bay residents.

Back in the 1990s in St. Petersburg, residents of Jordan Park, Florida’s oldest public housing project, gave up their community center to create the The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, a space dedicated to preserving the history of the city’s Black residents and the greater African Diaspora.

“Those with the least sacrificed the most so that we might have a space,” said Lipsey Scott, who is executive director of the Woodson. “That is heavy for me.”

The Woodson’s goldfinch-yellow building is beautiful but snug — Lipsey Scott said the museum has missed out on exhibits highlighting Black culture because it didn’t have the space to house the work.

“It grieves me, especially when we have some of the most amazing museums in the world, right here in our community. A missing link is a properly constructed African American museum.”

The museum is holding a sold-out “Jazzy Juneteenth Jubilee” concert on Sunday, which will raise money to build a new building in St. Petersburg’s 22nd Street S District, known as The Deuces, the historic hub of Black community life in St. Petersburg.

“My hope is that this museum will be the Smithsonian of the South,” Lipsey Scott said.

Ahead of Sunday, after a long two years, Hinton said she was excited for a day of celebrating, of dancing, of fun.

But she added there is more work to do.

“It’s crazy that out of my 44 years of living, I just learned about Juneteenth at 39,” Hinton said. “It is so important that this history is implemented in schools. Because lots of us still do not know about this.”

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