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Free at last! Here are your Juneteenth events in Sarasota this week

Written by on Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The West Coast Black Theater began early, with dance, music and a film this Sunday.

By Mark Warriner

Original Air Date: June 19, 2024

Host: Get ready to celebrate, Sarasota! It’s Juneteenth today, but the salutes have barely begun. WSLR reporter Mark Warriner was at a first event at the West Coast Black Theatre this Sunday.

[soundbite Martin Luther King, Free at last!]

Lobby of the Westcoast Black Theatre.

Mark Warriner: The story of Juneteenth is a bittersweet story of belated release from slavery. It was a story not widely known in America, except in some African American communities who passed it down for decades until it burst into the greater American conscience. The news of emancipation came slowly to the deep South and some western territories. It took a few years until Texas was forced, by federal troops, to officially accept all Americans were free. The emotional release expressed in the famous quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. — “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last, expresses the cathartic elation of the delayed freedom Africans Americans felt at the time. The same emotion could be felt last Sunday when the Black Westcoast Theatre Troupe kicked off Sarasota’s Juneteenth celebrations for this year.

Starting things off at the WBTT was a solo, interpretive dance performed by Monessa Salley. She glided around the open-air stage as if she was taken by the wind. At one point she draped herself over a chair. This was followed by the Onia Jazz Quartet and a demonstration of African drums and dance by the group Fethiou Thiiossane African Drums. 

[soundbite drums]

Performers explained the history of  the traditional dance and music. Despite the heat of the afternoon, all performances were enthusiastically received by an overflow audience.

Monessa Salley. Photos: Mark Warriner

Inside the stylish modern theater and lobby on Orange Avenue, the WBTT screened the new documentary “Into The Storm”. The documentary, produced by Ringling College students, explores the relationship between Sarasota High School and Booker High School during the period of desegregation. It focuses on the legendary 1966-1967 Booker basketball team, who went to the state championship but lost their school the next year in the desegregation shuffle. 

Judging from their reactions, many in the audience were obviously reliving their glory day, at least as far as local high school basketball. Whoops and hollers designated what was significant and felt, creating a living punctuation of  the movie’s plot. In the lobby, a former Booker student, now in her 70s, explained with tears in her eyes, the emotional roller coaster ride of being a Booker High School student at a moment of triumph, only to lose  her school altogether the next year. She thought although desegregation was the best for the country, it was a shock to the students at the time, since they derived so much pride from their team’s accomplishments.

“That was all we had at the time,” she said.

WSLR sat down with Nate Jacobs, founder and artistic director of WBTT and Executive Director Julie Leach, to discuss the festival. 

The West Coast Black Theatre on Orange Ave.

Nate Jacobs: Our institution is the institution to make sure that we bring acknowledgement and celebration to this day that celebrates freedom for especially black people, but all people, and give those people that were enslaved an opportunity to live life, and even pursuing the American dream, whatever that meant to them at that time. It’s significant, it is important. And I am so glad that the younger generation who come up with that knowledge, they got a jump on us, because the knowledge is out in the world. For Peter Lee Baptiste, for Macy Powell. Macy went to a historical black college, Howard University in Washington, DC. I went to a historical black college. I don’t even remember a whole lot talking about Juneteenth when I was in college. And so they come up now with that knowledge, and for them to not sit back on that and to be bold enough and brave enough to talk to their bosses and say, ‘Hey, we think this important’. 

MW: There are other Juneteenth events around Sarasota: Today, Wednesday, from 6-8 pm, the historic Leonard Reid House in Newtown hosts an event honoring two black Sarasota artists, John Sims and Eleanor Merritt. The goal, says Jevon A. Brown of The Ringling Museum of Art, is to give an overview of these artists’ legacies and show how they created opportunities for young, Black, aspiring artists to build upon the foundation they laid. In essence, fostering creativity in future generations. A follow-up discussion will explore how that may happen.

And then, this Saturday, it’s party time! A block party, hosted by the Newtown Historic Community, will unfold in the heart of Newtown at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Gillespie Avenue  this Saturday, June 22. It will feature live music, dozens of vendors, performances, and food.  There are also exhibits featuring local black trailblazers, pioneers, and places of historic significance. Markers will explain  the original footprint of Newtown. There is also a trolley tour of Newtown and Overtown, Sarasota’s original black settlement, which costs $45. The block party is free, and it happens noon to 7 p.m. 

Reporting for WSLR News, this is Mark Warriner.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.