Polk civic leaders gather at Juneteenth celebrations

Education is key to 'breaking down barriers'

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Salvatore Ambrosino

The Polk Street Underpass of West Bartow represented Pan-African colors over the last weekend as vendors, educators and civic leaders gathered under the bridge and at six different Polk County municipalities to celebrate Juneteenth, three days after President Joe Biden signed it into being the nation’s 12th national holiday. 

Juneteenth recognizes the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document which proclaimed an end to slavery in the United States, and occurs on the day union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and free enslaved people a full two-and-a-half years after its singing. In Florida, emancipation was proclaimed in Tallahassee on May 11, 1865, but the state wasn’t restored to the Union until 1868. 

In Bartow, the music and festivities were loud and Zelma Harris, the chairperson for Bartow’s 2021 Juneteenth Celebration, played a game of civics trivia. She asked from the crowd a show of hands for who could name three of the city’s commissioners.

“I wanted to ask questions specifically for young people, to make sure they know why they are here,” Harris said. “It’s not just fun and games. It’s our history. I want people not to just learn about our past, but appreciate our present and to look forward to our future, because we have a long way to go.” 

Attendees danced in front of the stage synchronously, or chose to talk with the vendors, one of them selling a Black-American history book by a man sporting a t-shirt quoting Malcom X. The book titled “I Am”, published in September 2020, is curated by Star Sanders, a poet and middle school teacher at local Union Academy. On June 20, she would be there in-person to talk about her book, a collection of poems written by Sanders describing the lives of prominent Black figures in American history. 

“By learning our history, we can figure out where we are going,” Sanders said. “My book is to teach people about history, so hopefully we can start breaking down barriers.” 

The book is the first of more volumes to come according to Sanders, who is hopeful to expand her books to include more people, which in its first edition portraits 32 notable Black-Americans through verse. 

“I want to be able to include more people, that’s why it’s going to be a series, it was really hard trying to choose just 32 people,” Sanders said, reflecting on the process of writing the book. “I used to be a terrible student in school. My people were beaten for writing in the dirt, for trying to learn how to read and now we get to go to school. A lot of us don’t put an emphasis on education because we don’t learn a lot about Black history in schools. We are learning about everyone else’s history, but a watered down history of ourselves.” 

Sanders said she wants to enable all students to learn about Black history, especially younger Black students who might be in need of historical role models. The book has sold over 500 copies and has been incorporated into classes at some schools, according to Sanders.

Sanders hopes to increase the number of classrooms using her book to teach Black history to younger audiences. 

In Lakeland, a formal meeting of local community and political leaders commenced inside the Coleman-Bush Building June 19 in the afternoon.

Doris Moore Bailey, former Lakeland NAACP president, talk show host at WLKF-AM 96.7 and regional director for the National Juneteenth Organization, was deeply involved in the celebration taking place inside the building. While trying to avoid politicizing the holiday, she believes there are concerns within the community she talks about frequently on her radio station that need to be voiced. Bailey speaks openly about recent events in politics, which she says have sustained Black-American’s struggle for freedom.

“There’s an imbalance here, and I must be political on this note,” Bailey said. “This county is ruby red and we don’t have any voices that support our causes, or any African-Americans on the county commission. We are having laws come about that set us back registering to vote or demonstrating, or having our First Amendment Rights really almost abolished.” 

Bailey speaks in reference to the controversial pieces of Florida legislation HB-1, which passed, and a number of other measures taken by the state governments around the country to combat voter fraud. Many fear the new laws will incriminate people exercising their right to peacefully protest and discourage people from voting. 

“We are having some real problematic times right now, and I want to see these changes come about,” Bailey said. “Even though we have Juneteenth—which is nice and honorable, there’s still much work to do.” 

Bailey also describes the Florida Board of Education’s June 10 ban on ‘Critical Race Theory’ in public schools, which according to Poynter Institute holds racism as a systemic pattern woven into law and American society historically. Because there’s so much to learn from this pattern in American history, she describes the ban as problematic.

In attendance 2021 city commissioner candidate Shandale Terrell explained that going forward the holiday contributes to the culture of Lakeland altogether. 

“I believe Juneteenth being recognized as a federal holiday is great. It shows the work Afro-Americans have contributed to this country,” Terrell said. “The next step is more unity, regardless of your party affiliation, we need more unity. We’ve had division for the past couple years. We need to come together as a people to survive.”

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