Bartow Celebrates Return of Juneteenth Celebration
by James Coulter
Members of the African American community in Bartow gathered together to welcome the return of their Juneteenth Celebration last weekend.
Several local vendors and food trucks set up underneath the Polk Street Overpass near Downtown Bartow to offer their food, drinks, and merchandise during the celebration on Saturday and Sunday.
Live musical performances were also offered with April Brown of Orlando on Saturday and Tremayne Toombs Campbell of Lake Wales. Several local organizations also set up booths to promote their services and programs to the local community, including the Bartow Police Department, Fire Department, and Polk County Democrats.
The two-day celebration was hosted by the Bartow Deacons and Stewards Alliance. Juneteenth had been celebrated in the city previously, but a celebration had not been hosted for several years.
Zelma Harris, Event Co-Chair and Vice President, wanted to bring the celebration back to her community. She was impressed by the turnout that weekend, as it showed that locals were willing to go outdoors following the pandemic and that people were honoring the holiday and what it means to the African American community.
“We are here to celebrate our past, to enjoy our present, and to look forward to our future,” Harris said.
Juneteenth commemorates the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, officially ending chattel slavery in America, freeing black slaves, and granting them equal rights as citizens.
Recently, President Joe Biden signed a bill officially recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday. Harris was incredibly proud of this accomplishment, as it formally recognizes the historic milestone for African Americans towards achieving equality and liberty.
“I am so excited,” she said. “It is well overdue. I think it is a great thing because so many people have given their lives so that we can have this freedom, and I think it is a great thing.”
The local community turned out in droves to celebrate the occasion. Several years had passed since the last Juneteenth was hosted in Bartow. This year’s celebration was a welcome return to normalcy for many residents, especially after a less-than-normal year.
“We are excited about the support we have received here in Bartow,” Harris said. “We love seeing people have fun. We have all been locked away during the pandemic. Now is the time for us to get out, enjoy ourselves, breathe, see our neighbors, and it is time for a good time.”
Jamie Gaskin, a member of the Juneteenth committee, was especially pleased by the turnout. The event offered her the opportunity to see and meet many friends and neighbors that she has not seen since the start of the pandemic.
“I think it is a wonderful gathering of a diversity of people here today that we are all celebrating after the pandemic with people ready to get out and enjoy the world,” she said.
Laurisa Clay, Director of Customer Service for New Beginnings High School, attended that weekend to promote her school. Recently, 143 students graduated that week during their graduation ceremony in Lakeland. She wanted to help local children gain similar educational opportunities.
Aside from chatting with prospective students, she also enjoyed celebrating Juneteenth. She loved the overall “vibe” of the event and was proud that the holiday had officially been recognized as a national holiday.
“I am so happy to be here,” she said. “I am so happy because what is exciting to me is that it is now a national holiday. And that is happening this week, so to be out here today celebrating our independence is a wonderful thing.”