The gloomy sky didn’t deter eventgoers from the 11th annual James Weldon Johnson Community Library Literacy Festival, sponsored by the Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library on Saturday, March 18.
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The gloomy sky didn’t deter eventgoers from the 11th annual James Weldon Johnson Community Library Literacy Festival, sponsored by the Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library on Saturday, March 18.
The library grounds were teeming with activity, complete with face painting, bounce houses, music, food galore, and of course, free books for the children.
The event is put on each year to promote literacy and to get children involved and exposed to the library. However, at one point, the library was in danger of being shut down.
“In the 1990s, they were going to close the library,” said Kevin Johnson, Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library vice president. “So we formed a petition drive to save it.”
The history of the James Weldon Johnson Branch is typical of the Jim Crow South. Industrialist and business magnate Andrew Carnegie spent the latter part of his life dedicated to philanthropic projects such as building community libraries. He intended for the library he funded (Mirror Lake Branch) to be racially integrated when it opened in 1915, but the city refused Black residents access.
In 1944, the city began allowing blacks into the basement of the downtown library. A local pastor and his wife formed an interracial committee and lobbied the city for funds to open a black library, and in 1947 the James Weldon Johnson Library opened in a leased space on Third Avenue South. It stayed there until 1979, when it was closed because of the impending destruction of the Gas Plant neighborhood to make way for Tropicana Field.
In 1981, the library was reopened inside the Enoch Davis Recreation Center. The Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library was formed in 1989 to prevent the library’s closing due to cuts in city funds. The group circulated a successful petition to save the library and marched on City Hall. The library moved to its current location, 1035 Third Ave. S, in 2002.
Johnson said the Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library continues the annual festival to keep the focal point on literacy because the number of African-American children in Pinellas County reading on grade level is dismal.
He encourages churches to not only have weekly bible studies but also weekly Black history studies. In that way, children will learn to read and learn their history.
“If you leave teaching our history up to them [the school system], it won’t get taught,” he said, noting that parents would benefit from Black history studies because schools have been deficient in teaching our history for generations.
If you missed the fun this year, next year promises to be even bigger with more entertainment, vendors, food, and of course, books!