Juneteenth and Emancipation Day in Florida

June 19th is celebrated in many parts of the United States as “Juneteenth,” to commemorate the end of slavery after the Civil War. Many Floridians, however, celebrate a separate Emancipation Day on May 20th. So… which date is correct, May 20th or June 19th? In taking a look at the history of these celebrations, we see that the answer is… both.

African-American women stand in front of a car decorated for an Emancipation Day parade in Lincolnville (circa 1925).

African-American women stand in front of a car decorated for an Emancipation Day parade in Lincolnville (circa 1925).

In today’s world, news of a single event can be transmitted across the planet in seconds. Social media, satellite telecommunications, and the Internet in general have all but erased the meaning of distance when it comes to getting an important message from point A to point B.

This was not the case in 1865, when the Civil War was coming to an end. Many telegraph lines had been destroyed during the conflict, and news about the war was often either incorrect or contradictory. Neither the end of the war nor the end of slavery was absolutely confirmed until Union troops arrived in each locality to receive the surrender of their Confederate counterparts. This process happened in stages, with areas farther west learning the news weeks after the folks closer to the east coast.

In Florida, the process began in May 1865. Union General Edward M. McCook arrived in Tallahassee to receive the surrender of Florida’s Confederate troops on May 10th. On May 20th, McCook formally announced President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from the steps of the Knott House, effectively ending slavery in the state. As a result, many Floridians celebrate May 20th as Emancipation Day.

Reeactors recreate Edward M. McCook's announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on the steps of the Knott House in Tallahassee. This was the 150th anniversary of the original announcement (2015).

Reeactors recreate Edward M. McCook’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on the steps of the Knott House in Tallahassee. This was the 150th anniversary of the original announcement (2015).

News of emancipation and the war’s official end did not reach Texas until the next month. On June 18th, Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston with 2,000 soldiers to occupy Texas. The following day, June 19th, he announced the Emancipation Proclamation from the balcony of the Ashton Villa. Consequently, emancipation is generally celebrated in Texas on June 19th.

Juneteenth celebrations are not limited to Texas, however. The tradition of celebrating the end of slavery on June 19th has spread to many communities in other states, including some in Florida. There has even been a movement to make June 19th a national holiday for commemorating emancipation.

Union soldier reenactor with children during the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration at the Knott House Museum in Tallahassee.

Union soldier reenactor with children during the May 20, 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration at the Knott House Museum in Tallahassee.

Search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of emancipation celebrations across the Sunshine State!

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4 thoughts on “Juneteenth and Emancipation Day in Florida

  1. May 5-6, 1864 is when the enslaved Africans living in Tampa, Florida were liberated by the Union Army and Navy. This is when Black and White Union soldiers captured Ft. Brooke in Tampa and brought with them freedom for Black people living in Hillsborough County. Dr. Canter Brown documents this history in his book Tampa In Civil War and Reconstruction. Tampa has held Emancipation Day celebrations on May 5 or 6 in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

  2. As a child growing up rural in Leon County, as long as I can remember, we always celebrated Emancipation Day on May 20th at Testerina P.B. Church on Miccosukee Road. We called it the “20th of May”. Rural schools were dismissed at 12:00 noon and around 3:00 PM, families would gather at the church. The celebration began, always, with prayer and thanks to God for our freedom. Afterwhich, onto the church grounds for the celebration. The women would cook all day at home and brought food to the celebration that was shared by all. Some of the food included fried chicken, fried fish, old fashioned potato salad,fresh greens,sweet potato pies, jelly layered cake, chocolate and coconut layered cakes. The men made big old barrels of cold lemonade. All my cousins would come from town and what a celebration we had. Those were the good old days. We celebrated our freedom. The elders and young men beat the drums in a beat unlike any I have heard, but it represented the sounds of “freedom”. Today, most children don’t even know what “Emancipation Day” mean. In our rural communities, all persons respected this day, both “colored” and white.

    I will share these stories with the young people in honor of the struggles and hardships endured by our ancestors.

    Keep hope alive.

  3. As history of Leon County recalls, the very first Emancipation Day was celebrated on May 20th, 1865,at 2:00 PM, and held at what is now Lake Ella on North Monroe Street. Over 2,000 free slaves showed up to the celebration.

    Florida State Archives records also reveal names of the “Colored” soldiers from our area who fought in the Civil War. Records also reveal the first “colored” voters in Leon County was around 1867 and 1868, and all male. I found some names on my family tree listed.

  4. I recommend that the official Juneteenth Flag includes the date of January 1, 1863, Emancipation Day, below the Juneteenth date of June 19, 1865. The purpose of this recommendation is to increase awareness of The Emancipation Proclamation and to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Thank you for your support of the Juneteenth Flag!

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