Celebrating Juneteenth

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Studio@620, located at 620 First Ave. S., was filled on Friday for the annual Juneteenth celebration put on by the Midtown Celebrity Club. This year instead of just one day of celebration, four days were dedicated to recognizing 150 years of freedom for African Americans from slavery.

“I’m trying to make sure that I get as many people’s attention as I can,” said hostess and founder of the Midtown Celebrity Club, Paulette Jones, who called for everyone to take advantage of the opportunities in the community, and to get involved in various events and causes. “We can no longer pretend like everything is OK.”

Of course she was talking about the events in Charleston, S.C., where nine churchgoers lost their lives due to racial violence, and also to a nation still dealing with how to respond to crime when it comes to the police force. “We need to learn how to pay attention and get involved,” she said.

The Midtown Celebrity Club is a grassroots organization founded just three years ago with the goal of promoting and enhancing academic and cultural opportunities for inner city youths. Through parent engagement, supporting academic excellence and incorporating performing arts, the Club hopes to make a difference not only on the south side of town, but throughout Pinellas County.

The first day of the Juneteenth celebration took place at Brister Temple Church of God where Pastor Eddie Robinson attends his flock. Some 150 churchgoers and community members showed up along with folks from the police department to share a few words of encouragement.

“It was great because African Americans have a history of not being able to work together,” explained Jones who worked with the local churches emphasizing that survival depends on collaboration with community partners. “Once we established that it’s not about us, it’s about the greater good of the community, and then everything else fell in place.”

For Jones, extending the Juneteenth celebration to four days worked out pretty well. On that first day in church, spiritual songs such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace” were sung reminding many of their ancestors and their African roots.

A panel discussion was put together on the second day of celebration consisting of important community leaders such as Police Chief Anthony Holloway and Councilman Wengay Newton, just to name a few.

According to Jones, the panel discussion centered mostly around police accountability while also focusing on the high number of youths arrested in Pinellas County. Jones likes panel discussions and feels they help promote communication and lead to people getting more involved with a solution, instead of complaining.

“The reason why I do Juneteenth is I want the community to have an opportunity to come out and speak their voice, to meet their leaders,” she explained stating that in order to make a lasting difference people need to get out and join their neighborhood association, know what’s happening in their community. “We need to be aware of what’s going on around us at all times. You just don’t know who’s going to be there in your time of need.”

Day three of the celebration concentrated on the arts. With skits created and performed by the Midtown Celebrity Club Players, mime presentations from Hands of Praise and True Worshippers Mime Ministry, along with dance performances from the Academy of Ballet Arts, Inc. and performances by the Imagination Station, the celebration of freedom could not be mistaken.

Since Juneteenth marks the day that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, marched into Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free, it was only fitting to hear a true account of what it was like to be forced into a life of slavery.

Master of Ceremony Shabazz Rogers, who has worked with youths for some 30 years and continues to mentor today, read an excerpt from a slave narrative entitled “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.” Equiano was the first successful professional author of African descent in the English-speaking world.

Rogers read about the practice of the day, village members climbing trees acting as lookouts for kidnappers who would wait for the elders to go out to tend to their work before slipping in and taking the children.

“They stuffed our mouths, hands tied and ran off with us into the nearest woods,” read Rogers.

On a brighter note, Rogers discussed the history of drums with those in attendance explaining that the drum is an extension of the heart, continuously beating and portraying life.

“It’s the one universal instrument that every society shares,” said Rogers who encouraged African Americans to research their history in music back to their African ancestors and familiarize themselves with the ancient styles. “It was a form of communication,” said Rogers. Slaves would use music to communicate with their brothers and sisters on the neighboring plantations and connect to each other.

Jones, along with the Midtown Celebrity Club, plan on continuing to celebrate African-American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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