History unfolded Saturday inside the Family Life Center gymnasium in Palatka as the community gathered to celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time.
The walls were draped in red, yellow, black and green. Portraits of Harriet Tubman and Ruby Bridges hung between framed definitions of justice and Juneteenth, noun: a celebration of freedom to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S.
What La’Farrah Davis saw exceeded her expectations. The room was filled with proud entrepreneurs selling everything from Tupac T-shirts to books. Food trucks stretched the front lawn and across the street, filling the air with the smells of oxtails and low country boil.
The county health department was offering COVID vaccinations. Community services abounded and activists circled with petitions to make voting more accessible for everyone — glimpses that though freedom had been granted, the fight for equity was ongoing.
If the gymnasium was a game of I-Spy, one symbol could be spotted in a dozen places: a brown fist held up in power, the shackles breaking off the wrist.
The positivity and celebration for which Davis hoped were evident in the smiles and chatter. A saxophonist played over the beats of the live DJ.
But more than anything, she was proud of the diversity she saw. Though the day celebrated the freedom of African Americans, people of other ethnicities were present — something she hopes will grow over time.
“It’s just unity,” Davis said. “That’s all we want at the end of the day. We all bleed the same type of blood, the same color blood, let’s just work together.”
The day was a manifestation of months of Davis’ hard work as the event’s organizer. It was important to her to pass what she had learned about Juneteenth on to the community.
“When I was in grade school, it wasn’t taught,” Davis said.
Cynthia Asia, who represented the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority at the event, graduated high school in Palatka before desegregation and went on to a long career in education in Putnam County. She said teachers are told what to teach and what not to teach, and much of African American history is not delivered in classrooms.
Just over a week ago, Florida’s state Board of Education banned “critical race theory” from public school classrooms. But Asia feels like change has to start with more talk, education and understanding. Not less.
“The governor says it’s not factual,” Asia said, referring to critical race theory, “but if you haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins, then you really don’t know.
“Those hard issues, you have got to put them on the table.”
Davis is now trying to make up for what she didn’t learn in the classroom.
“Now I’m educating myself more about Juneteenth,” Davis said, “to know the difference between the Fourth of July, where we celebrate independence, which was in 1776, and freedom.”
At the time when America’s founders wrote that it was self-evident that all men were created equal, it was still legal to own another human being. Slaves wouldn’t be emancipated until nearly a century later.
Davis’ cousin, Tevel Adams, considers this distinction key.
“As an African American male living in America,” Adams said, “Juneteenth is my independence day.”
Adams, who delivered a speech on the history of Juneteenth at the event, left the crowd with this: “We’re not free until everyone is free.”
This Juneteenth, Adams is celebrating the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, as well as the protests and momentum he’s seen build over the past year. But there are things he’d like to see change before the next Juneteenth.
Nearly half of Palatka’s population is Black, and is represented by an all-Black city commission. But the city sits in a majority white county with an all-white county commission.
Less than a mile away from the Juneteenth festivities, a Confederate statue towers on the county courthouse lawn. On the side of the statue are engraved the words: “The principals for which they fought will live eternally.”
Adams, who co-founded the Putnam Alliance for Equity and Justice, has been active in the fight to remove the statue. In November, the Putnam County Commission agreed to move the statue to East Palatka’s Veteran’s Memorial Park instead — if $200,000 of private money could be raised inside the county and within 90 days for the project, conditions that weren’t met.
Adams wants Black residents to be able to walk up the courthouse steps expecting justice, to no longer have to cross under the shadow of those words.
And while he welcomes white allies, he said he hopes to see more people who look like him fighting for equity as well.
“Get into good trouble,” he encouraged the crowd, echoing the words of former U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died last July.
This Juneteenth, while the courthouse lawn was still and quiet, the gymnasium was bursting with life.
“This is a celebration,” Davis said. “No matter how the history, the story, may have been suffering, battling brutality, you know, losing lives, mistreated — it’s still a celebration of freedom.”