It’s 1865. The Civil War has been over for less than two weeks, and Union forces take control of Tallahassee, the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi that was not captured during the war.
Edwin McCook, a brigadier general in the Union Army, announced that the Declaration of Emancipation issued by President Abraham Lincoln over two years earlier was in effect.
Florida’s slaves were free.
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The first official Emancipation Day celebration will take place in Jacksonville on Thursday, marking May 20th as a feast day. The festival takes place from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at James Weldon Johnson Park in the heart of downtown Jacksonville and features live music, drum and dance ensembles, poetry, a community art project, and food trucks. Admission is free.
Rahman Johnson, an educator and journalist from Jacksonville, will host the ceremony. He hopes it will educate people about why it’s important to celebrate Florida’s Emancipation Day.
“It will help the community understand why May 20th is important,” said Johnson. “We’re at the forefront of history here. It’s a moment full of circles in a park named after James Weldon Johnson.”
James Weldon Johnson and his brother are credited with writing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” widely regarded as the black national anthem. The park across from City Hall was renamed Johnson in 2020.
“It’s an opportunity not just for black people in Jacksonville but for everyone in Jacksonville to celebrate black history,” said Rahman Johnson. “This is an opportunity for all of us to come together.”
Johnson said he grew up in Jacksonville and would go to a ceremony every January 1 to commemorate the Declaration of Emancipation, which was issued on January 1, 1863.
“It was a must in my household on January 1st to hear the reading of the Declaration of Emancipation,” he said. “I’ve done this every year of my childhood.”
Many black people across the country also celebrate June 19th, marking the date on which slaves are officially released in Texas. But May 20 should be the date the Floridians celebrate, Johnson said. Technically, Florida’s slaves have been free since Lincoln’s proclamation, but they didn’t know until McCook announced it.
“It was official, but there was a different kind of bureaucracy when this soldier stood on the Capitol steps and said this was what the president said,” said Johnson.
Ju’Coby Pittman, who represents District 8 on Jacksonville City Council, said there has long been a move across the state to make May 20 the day Floridians celebrate emancipation.
“There was some kind of undercurrent to correcting the date Florida was emancipated,” Pittman said. “In the past few years there has been a concerted effort to get history right in the state of Florida.”
Pittman said similar celebrations are planned in cities across the state. She said she would like to see May 20th be the date that Florida emancipation is celebrated.
“I think over the years that nobody really pushed it,” she said. “I think a lot of African Americans in the state celebrated this date because it is so important. If you know better, you better do it.”
She will appear at a press conference with other heads of state to start the celebration at 11 a.m. She hopes to turn the celebration into an annual event in Jacksonville.
“I believe that if we continue to make our city great, our community can unite,” said Pittman.
Celebrations of emancipation
Emancipation is celebrated at various times across the country. Here are the three biggest dates:
• New Year’s Day: Marks the day on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Declaration of Emancipation freeing all slaves in rebellious states.
• June 19: Commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Union General Gordon Granger announced that all slaves in Texas were free.
• Emancipation Day: Commemorates May 20, 1865, the day Union General Edwin McCook declared in Tallahassee that all slaves in Florida were free. On the same day, Tallahassee received a message from Jacksonville’s Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore declaring that “the people of the black race are free citizens of the United States.”