As she walked down the St. Petersburg City Hall steps to speak, “Wake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes played.
“Are we woke?” Terri Lipsey Scott asked the crowd multiple times as she picked up the microphone, the song still playing in the background.
Being “woke” was a theme for Scott, the executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, as she and other community leaders spoke Wednesday, the first day of Black History Month, at a flag-raising ceremony. They targeted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial Individual Freedom Act, also known as Florida’s Stop Woke act, and decisions to ban books in public schools, such as the Pinellas County school district banning Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from its high schools last week.
“We are faced with recently passed laws of banned books, sanitized Black history, and a demand to denounce diversity, equity and inclusion,” Scott said. “We shall declare on this day that books written by Black authors and others that tell our story shall not be banned, but made readily available for everyone’s reading pleasure.”
Some of the speakers — including Jacqueline Hubbard, representing the St. Petersburg branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History — announced action against DeSantis’ education policies. Hubbard said the association, in conjunction with the Woodson African American Museum, will start a Freedom School in Pinellas County this spring to teach Black history.
The Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church said the church will work with the Freedom School to teach an Advanced Placement course on African American History — a class DeSantis said violates state law and “lacks educational value.”
Oliver said the church will partner with teachers who volunteer to lead the class even though they could be risking their jobs by doing so.
He then turned to look straight into the television cameras as he spoke, addressing DeSantis directly. .
“If the governor is watching, I want to thank you for making this class so popular,” Oliver said. “I want to invite you to enroll in this class, and I think you have some things to learn.”
Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers said she didn’t feel well Wednesday, and nearly called Scott to cancel.. But she said she then thought about how many times Martin Luther King Jr. may have spoken when he felt sick — so she came anyway.
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“If they can do it, I can get on the interstate,” Flowers said.
Flowers spoke about improving education in Pinellas County. She referenced buildings named after famous Black individuals in the community — such as the Morris W. Milton Post Office and the Enoch Davis Recreation Center — and said local students should be taught who those people were, so they aren’t only known as names on a building.
After the speakers concluded, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch joined the group to raise a flag in honor of Carter G. Woodson and Black History Month at City Hall. The flag will remain raised for all of February.
“History does matter,” Welch said. “Black history is American history. And for our flagraising ceremony this afternoon, it not only commemorates the rich culture, the achievements and the history, it also honors the legacy of a man celebrated as the father of Black history, Dr. Carter G. Woodson.”