FSU Special Collections & Archives commemorates May 20th, Florida’s Emancipation Day, and the history of Emancipation in the United States. On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.1 Because it only applied to states “in rebellion” it excluded enslaved people in the four border states that remained in the Union. Furthermore, its signing in 1863 meant that it could only be enforced when Confederate states surrendered. While these aspects of the Proclamation did not guarantee freedom in 1863, it established a precedent to be enforced after the conclusion of the Civil War.
On May 20, 1865, General Edward McCook accepted Florida’s surrender in Tallahassee and gained control of the city. Not only did General McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation, he enforced it.3 Newly emancipated people celebrated McCook’s reading of the Proclamation and their freedom at Bull’s Pond, contemporarily known as Lake Ella, with a picnic.4 This first celebration of May Day would continue every year in Tallahassee. An oral history interview of Grady C. Cromartie tells us more about how May Day was celebrated locally in the early 20th Century.5 In Iamonia, North of Tallahassee, the Black community bought bottled drinks from local stores, had picnics, cooked and ate meals, and celebrated at local churches. Between the Iamonia store and Meridian Road, celebrations occurred at the Hickory Hill Church specifically.
Emancipation occurred at different times for different people across the country because it required Confederate surrender on a state-by-state basis. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger and his men road through Galveston, Texas reading General Order No. 3, which freed all remaining enslaved people in the state of Texas. Juneteenth, another observed Emancipation Day, originated from this date in Texas History. However, because this occurred in Florida History on May 20th, May Day is celebrated as Emancipation Day in Florida.7 The Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network (FAAHPN) organized by the John Gilmore Riley Center & Museum advocates for the preservation and education of Florida’s African American culture and history including the official recognition of May 20th across the state.
This year, the Tallahassee community is celebrating May Day in a variety of places. To find out more, please look at this calendar of local events. In addition, the Knott House Museum’s website will be hosting a virtual May Day celebration. At 9 P.M. on May 20th, WFSU is airing the FSU College of Motion Picture Arts’ filmmaker in residence Valerie Scoon’s Documentary, “Invisible History: Middle Florida’s Hidden Roots.”
- “The Emancipation Proclamation,” National Archives and Records Administration (National Archives and Records Administration), accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation#:~:text=President%20Abraham%20Lincoln%20issued%20the,and%20henceforward%20shall%20be%20free.%22.
- African American workers and tenants celebrating Emancipation Day (May 20th) at Horseshoe Plantation. 1930 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/40455>, accessed 12 May 2021.
- “20th Of May,” Museum of Florida History, accessed May 12, 2021, https://www.museumoffloridahistory.com/about/the-knott-house-museum/20th-of-may/.
- Grady C. Cromartie, OHPC 0009, January 23, 1970, Reichelt Oral History Collection, Florida State University Special Collections & Archives, Tallahassee, Florida.
- “Black Community to Rally Around Emancipation Day,” Florida Flambeau May 19, 1980, Florida State University Special Collections & Archives, Tallahassee, Florida.
- “Emancipation Day in Florida,” accessed May 11, 2021, https://dos.myflorida.com/library-archives/research/explore-our-resources/emancipation/.