It’s only the beginning, but Gulfport showed pride at its Juneteenth celebration with predominantly Black vendors and strong community ties.
The holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, marking the day that news finally reached one of the last enslaved communities in Galveston, Texas in 1865. On Saturday, June 19 Gulfport held the first official celebration of Juneteenth, co-hosted by the city and Gulfport Kiwanis Club.
The grass behind the Gulfport Recreation Center was full of vendors and volunteers, and Marissa Stewart-Dix, President of the Gulfport Kiwanis Club, is to thank for the new event.
“I think we’re moving past certain attitudes, and I like to look to the future,” Stewart-Dix said.
The celebration featured vendors including the St. Petersburg’s Black-owned and sustainably sourced Southside Fresh Market, as well as Truelight #6 Masonic Lodge and the Gulfport Lions Club, among others.
“The smiles on the kids’ faces is what did it for me; they are the focus,” Stewart-Dix said. “We look forward to making this an annual event, partnering with more community members for a combination of education and good times.”
Inflatable blowups and candy giveaways brought a younger crowd, and Stewart-Dix says she hopes to bring a more historical teaching angle to future events.
“I made an assumption that everyone knew what Juneteenth was celebrating, because growing up, my church taught us what school didn’t,” Stewart-Dix said. “The educational part of this is something we want to hone in on.”
Last Juneteenth, in the midst of the pandemic, Stewart-Dix and her husband, Derrick Dix, who is also involved with the Kiwanis Club, celebrated a quiet holiday on Gulfport Beach.
No vendors, no music – just the couple among a collection of separate families relaxing on the shoreline.
“We told someone ‘Happy Juneteenth’ and they asked us if there were celebrations in the area,” Stewart-Dix said. “I saw a light bulb go off over my husband’s head.”
With no public Juneteenth events they could name, the two decided to change the local agenda.
In June of this year, the Gulfport Kiwanis Club presented a request at a Gulfport Council meeting to use city property for the first ever Juneteenth celebration, and it was a unanimous yes from community leaders.
“Originally this was planned to be in the rec center parking lot, but with a need for more parking and with how hot it is, we decided to move over a little closer to the water,” said Justin Shea, Gulfport’s Cultural Facilities Events Supervisor.
City officials and some councilmembers attended, along with a hefty turnout of families.
“It’s only going to get bigger and better,” said David Flack, a volunteer with the Kiwanis Club and other Gulfport community groups. “Just goes to show that Gulfport wants to show change and welcome everyone to the table.”
Paired with National History
Two days before, President Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federally recognized holiday.
“I couldn’t have thought of a better situation for this; it was really overwhelming,” Stewart-Dix said. “You can’t plan something like that.”
As only the 12th legal public holiday, Juneteenth celebrations may now become more mainstream.
“I think the national news got the holiday sort of trending, and that’s great because it leads people to ask questions,” Stewart-Dix said. “It’s not just Black history – though it’s very important to Black history – it’s American history.”