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Juneteenth bus tour teaches Central Floridians about local Black history

The Juneteenth Central Florida Black History Tour at the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce.
Danielle Prieur
The Juneteenth Central Florida Black History Tour at the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce.

The bus tour took place the weekend of June 15, and visited several Central Florida historical sites including Ocoee and Eatonville. 

About forty people took a bus tour of important Black history sites around Central Florida this weekend ahead of Juneteenth. June 19th, 1865, marks the day when the last enslaved people in the U.S. learned they were free.

A Juneteenth bus tour takes off in Central Florida

The goal of the Juneteenth Central Florida Black History Bus Tour was simple: to highlight important history Floridians may not learn about in school.

The Juneteenth Central Florida Black History tour bus.
Danielle Prieur
The Juneteenth Central Florida Black History tour bus.

That’s why 13-year-old Kaitlyn Heard joined her mom, Yolanda Powell on the tour, even though it's a Saturday during her summer vacation. To learn some history.

“I've always been like a history buff, a history geek. So learning about my own state, which I barely know anything about. It was an eye-opener for me. It was a game-changer,” Heard said.

Kaitlyn’s entering eighth grade at Southwest Middle School in Palm Bay. She said she hasn’t learned a lot about Black history outside the big national names.

“We just learned about the basic Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, stuff that happened years and years and years ago. Never this. Never anything in Florida,” Heard said.

I caught up with the mother and daughter at the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce stop of the tour. The township is the oldest Black incorporated municipality in the US.

The tour group had already visited Ocoee, the site of the 1920 massacre of Black residents, and Washington Shores, one of the first Black communities in Orlando.

Under Florida state statutes, schools are required to teach Black history. What people have had concerns about is to what degree.

Last month, the Florida State Board of Education reapproved Black History standards that teach kids that, “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."

AP African American History is still banned in the state, and the Stop Woke Act, limits how teachers can talk about race and gender in K-12 classrooms.

From left to right, Yolanda Powelll, Charlotte Kendall, and Kaitlyn Heard all participated in the bus tour.
Danielle Prieur
From left to right, Yolanda Powelll, Charlotte Kendall, and Kaitlyn Heard all participated in the bus tour.

Experts like Rollins College’s Dr. Eric Smaw said that’s why bus tours like this one, and classes like the ones he’s taught at Agape Church in Orlando are crucial. Both are ways to fill in the education gaps, when it comes to Black history.

“So on the one hand, it's good because you have community engagement from scholars where you wouldn't otherwise have it,” Smaw said.

But Smaw said this history should be taught in Florida classrooms in its fullness. He said a one-day tour, or one-day class or workshop can’t take the place of a full-semester class, taught by a certified history teacher or college professor.

“I enjoy what people are doing. I participated myself, I think it's excellent that they've stepped up. But I also think it's a shame that where the experts are in the classrooms, the knowledge can't be delivered to students there,” Smaw said.

Over the last year, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education have said that Black history is still being taught in Florida.

Floridians grapple with their state’s education policies

Back on the tour Robert and Anna Beck who moved to Florida from Illinois, said they can’t imagine their children or grandchildren not learning Black history. Robert’s almost speechless thinking about it.

Husband and wife, Robert and Anna Beck on the Black History bus tour.
Danielle Prieur
Husband and wife, Robert and Anna Beck on the Black History bus tour.

“That’s America. That’s us. What can we not know about that? Our fellow Americans, black, purple, yellow, white, we have to know about all of us. Of course, we should know about each other. I don't want my children and grandchildren not to know as much as they can,” Beck said.

Anna said although they love living in Florida, she’s been disappointed to see what’s been happening when it comes to teaching Black history in the state.

“We should be progressing. Not regressing which is what seems to be happening here in Florida. I love the state. I love the beauty. I love Florida. I'm so glad we moved here, but that piece needs some work,” Beck said.

Fellow tour participant, Charlotte Kendall agreed.

“It's just so important to me to know history. And my dream is that someday it won't be Black history. It'll just be history of all of us,” Kendall said.

The Eatonville bus stop at the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce. Participants were encouraged to take literature about the town and upcoming events.
Danielle Prieur
The Eatonville bus stop at the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce. Participants were encouraged to take literature about the town and upcoming events.

Where do we go from here?

For mom Yolanda Powell she said she hopes there are more Central Florida Black history tours, in the coming months and years, to make sure families can learn this history.

“It has literally opened up my eyes. And I've learned so much. And I hope to do it again next year. I hope she has us again next year,” Powell said.

Patricia Bebe who is with the nonprofit Paving Pathways Florida, dedicated to the advancement of underserved families in Florida, and LaVonda Wilder, Director of the Eatonville Chamber of Commerce, helped coordinate the tour.

Patricia Bebe is the director of the nonprofit <a  href="https://www.pavingpathwaysfl.com/">Paving Pathways Florida</a>, which helped coordinate the tour.
Danielle Prieur
Patricia Bebe is the director of the nonprofit Paving Pathways Florida, which helped coordinate the tour.

Bebe said there will be more bus tours. But the tours are only a first step in uplifting Black and brown narratives and histories in the state.

“So all history: Black, white, Hispanic, indigenous is American history. But we know oftentimes in the U.S. we have challenges with elevating brown and Black populations or BIPOC populations. And so I want to use this work to elevate those contributions,” Bebe said.

Wilder added that through daily and weekly events at the center like this tour, she’s focused on making sure that the history of places like Eatonville are front and center throughout the year.

Eatonville Chamber of Commerce Director LaVonda Wilder welcomes the tour to her town.
Danielle Prieur
Eatonville Chamber of Commerce Director LaVonda Wilder welcomes the tour to her town.

She’s hopeful that the state’s first Black History Museum might still come to her town, bringing tourists from around the country and world to learn about Florida’s Black history.

The Florida Museum of Black History Task Force still needs to consider the final results of a land study that will determine among other things, which site is most conducive to a museum.

“Because if we don't talk about history, what happens? It dies. We're so caught up on these phones holding these phones in our hands. We don't research anything, we don't read anymore. If we don't tell our story, who tells our story?” Wilder asked.

Copyright 2024 Central Florida Public Media

Danielle Prieur