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Bicentennial Spotlight: 2021 Celebration of Florida's Territorial Bicentennial

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
A snapshot of the bicentennial program.

On July 17, 1821, Spain transferred control of Florida to the United States.

Now, after 200 years, and months of planning and promotion, Florida’s Territorial Bicentennial and the 200th Anniversary of Escambia County will be commemorated with a big community celebration Saturday, July 17, at Museum Plaza in downtown Pensacola.

“It’s going to be a celebration of the diversity of Pensacola, not only what it was, but what it is today,” said Dr. Judy Bense, UWF Archaeologist Emeritus and chair of the Pensacola-Escambia 200th Anniversary Commission.

She says from the beginning of their planning, there’s been an emphasis on the long-lasting diversity that — for two centuries — has carried over from the new American territory and its newly established Escambia County.

“We still have the same ethnicities here in town. The numbers are different, but the cultures are alive and well, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, and French.”

This diversity will be reflected in the day’s program and entertainment.

“We have a Mariachi band that is going to play Mariachi music for beautiful, costumed, whirling dancers from Mexico,” she said. “Then, we will have African Congo drummers, and they’re going to dance and play drum music. “

This special day in history will begin with a sunrise ceremony by the Santa Rosa Creek Tribe. Bense says all are welcome to attend, however, no filming, recording, or photography will be allowed at this sacred service, “It’s a bit like our Easter sunrise service in the Christian religion. It’s a very solemn ceremony as we see the sun come up and remember the significance of the day.”

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Listen to Sandra Averhart's entire interview with Dr. Judy Bense.

After a few hour's break for breakfast or errands, the rest of the day’s festivities will commence back at Museum Plaza (120 Church St.), which is the approximate location (some historians believe it's nearby Plaza Ferdinand) where the original ceremony was held.

“The UWF Band will be playing historic patriotic songs and Dr. Britton Braddock (Director of Bands and Music Education at the Grier Williams School of Music) is doing the research and the band is practicing and that’s going to signal to gather,” Bense said. “Then, we will have the dignitaries speak.”

Set to start at about 10 a.m., the official program will include proclamations and remarks by Florida U.S. Senator and former Governor Rick Scott, Sec. of State Laurel Lee, Captain Tim Kinsella, Commanding Officer at Naval Air Station Pensacola, and a host of local dignitaries, such as Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson and Escambia County Commission Chair Robert Bender.

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Courtesy of Judith Bense
1827 map of West Florida by John L. Williams

“Then we’re going to have the flag-raising ceremony,” Bense said, noting that everyone will have to stand and turn around because the flag pole is near the back of the newly named Pensacola Museum of History.

“And, we’re going to have the Star-Spangled Banner play (which it did in 1821). Yes, it did, right after it was accepted as our national anthem. It was one of the first playings of it.”

In a special touch, Dr. Bense pointed out that great care has been taken to re-create the ceremony from 200 years ago with a level of historical accuracy.

“And, one thing I want to tell you about the flag, what flag was raised in 1821. And, it is the 23-Star flag,” she said, noting that the 23 stars represented the 23 states in America at that time.

Florida, which didn’t become a state until 1845, was just coming under U.S. control.

“We were a territory and that is what we are celebrating.”

In honor of that flag, local restaurants have created a special 23-Star Salute cocktail, based on ingredients documented in The Floridian newspaper ads of 1821.

Further, there will be a history-themed scavenger hunt for kids and bicentennial reenactors.

“On Friday, the day before, and the day of, they’re going to be reenacting different battles that took place here and elsewhere as part of Florida becoming a U.S. territory, Bense said.

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Sandra Averhart
Dr. Judy Bense is chair of the Pensacola-Escambia County 200th Anniversary Commission.

Costumed reenactors also will be on hand to help display a replica of a keelboat that was in use during this period in local history.

“The keelboat is like a cargo boat. It’s small, probably only 30 to 40 feet long, but that’s what went up and down the rivers from Pensacola up to Pace and Milton, Jay, Cantonment, those areas,” Bense said.

The boat will be on display at Pitt Slip behind The Fish House, 600 S. Barracks St.

One of the highlights of the ceremony will be the unveiling of a new historic marker in observance of the territorial bicentennial.

“As soon as the American flag is raised, and people are gathered around the flagpole, we’ll unveil just a great historic marker, one side is in English. One side is in Spanish.”

The winner of the bicentennial essay contest will be announced. And, to commemorate the occasion, there will be a flyover by the Navy’s 6th Training Squadron out of Whiting Field.

Florida’s Territorial Bicentennial Celebration will be held at Museum Plaza behind the Pensacola Museum of History, with the official ceremony to start around 10 a.m.

To find out more, go online to VisitPensacola.com/200th or check out this story on our website, wuwf.org.