Over the past 20 years, Linda and Columbus Thompson have developed a personal passion for history into something with a much broader reach.
As the organizers of the Sankofa Juneteenth Heritage Gathering, the Thompsons also perform educational outreach programs throughout the year that focus on African and African-American culture and history.
In the Akan language of Ghana, West Africa, the word sankofa means “to go back and fetch what you did not know or forgot.” Part of the meaning is also, Linda explains, to prepare and preserve that knowledge discovered for future generations.
“That’s why we’re constantly searching and presenting as we go,” she said, standing outside of the Belmont Building where this year’s Sankofa Juneteenth Heritage Gathering—the 10th annual—will take place.
The Juneteenth event’s subtitle, “Restoring the Forgotten Heritage to the Forgotten People,” indicates how the Thompsons’ research initially began, with the question, “Who am I?”
Growing up in Europe in a Navy family Linda remembers, “I was just curious—I travelled so much as a child to different countries. I always wanted to know the history, even as a child.”
Linda and Columbus married in 1965, living and travelling abroad for Columbus’ assignments in the Navy, also. The couple settled in Pensacola upon Columbus’ retirement in 1994.
“As I got older and came back here, I started looking at Juneteenth and I wanted to know a bit more,” Linda recalled.
Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the day—June 19, 1865—on which enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free, over two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April of 1865, ending the Civil War, and it was Union Troops that brought word to Texas, the last state to learn of emancipation.
Since the late 1800s, Juneteenth has been celebrated as a holiday in communities throughout the U.S.
The Thompsons’ research started with the ending of slavery and went back through time. “We do it in reverse—it’s the old history that we had no clue of,” said Linda.
“We were learning and finding out so many different things that were new to me,” remembers Linda, who began displaying African artifacts in the clothing store she owned, Talinda’s Designs. Customers were curious and Linda found she was often sharing information about the African art, statues, and fabrics on display.
Columbus, who grew up in Louisiana, noticed over the years that there were no organized Juneteenth events in Pensacola. “We’ve been doing [Juneteenth] there all our lives, as long as I can remember,” said Columbus who learned Juneteenth is a state holiday in Florida, but was not widely observed in this area. The Thompsons decided to hold a Juneteenth celebration at Talinda’s in 2004 and “We’ve been going with it ever since.”
“It’s a constant growth process,” said Linda, who, along with Columbus, leads afterschool and senior citizen programs, and travels to events at universities and military bases as well. The size of their display and presentation can be tailored to the venue and audience, and includes a variety of artifacts and instruments.
In addition to a large historical display, this year’s Juneteenth Gathering will feature speakers, poetry, dancing, vendors, food, and music, including a performance by the Belmont Youth Band. The festival will also have children’s games and activities for different age groups.
Holding the event this year in the Belmont Building, the Thompsons are hoping to assist Reverend John Powell Sr. raise funds to repair the building, which is home to Powell’s Truth for Youth program. “We’re there to support Reverend Powell,” said Linda, “to help him get his building completed. Every little bit will help.”
Other partners in the event include the Israelite Heritage Organization, WRNE Radio, Top Celebrity Crew and Good Works Church.
“It’s American history, Black history, it’s World History,” said Columbus of he and his wife’s work. “It’s World history, because everybody needs to know,” agreed Linda, adding the research and outreach is about “bringing everybody back together. It’s not just for so-called African-Americans, it’s for everybody. I find more Caucasian people that really want to know—they only know bits and pieces, too. I meet people everywhere who ask me questions.”
The Thompsons are now working to turn the Talinda’s Designs store space on Barrancas Avenue into a Sankofa Heritage Museum and Resource Center. Currently closed, the building is being renovated to better display the artifacts and information the couple has collected in their research.
“It’s such a spiritual journey to find out,” said Linda, who sees the learning process, which she shows no signs of giving up, as “a daily evolution, because you’re finding something new, there’s so much history to expose.” And, like a true scholar, she is happy and committed to sharing her knowledge.
SANKOFA JUNETEENTH HERITAGE GATHERING
WHEN: 1-6 p.m. Saturday, June 15
WHERE: The Belmont Building, 432 W. Belmont St.
DETAILS: Contact Elder Columbus Thompson or Ima Linda Thompson at email@example.com or 316-0376