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20th of May

Emancipation in Florida

20th of May Logo


On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the rebelling Southern states. More than two years later, on May 10, 1865, Union General Edward McCook arrived in Tallahassee to take possession of the city from Southern forces. General McCook established his headquarters at the Hagner House, now known as the Knott House. On May 20, he declared the Emancipation Proclamation in effect. Former slaves celebrated this announcement with a picnic at Bull Pond, today's Lake Ella. Annually since 1865, communities in Tallahassee have celebrated May 20th as Emancipation Day, and today, activities still are held throughout the city.


African American workers and tenants celebrating Emancipation Day (May 20th)
at Horseshoe Plantation, ca. 1930. Image Courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida


Virtual 20th of May Celebration

The Museum of Florida History and John G. Riley Museum are pleased to present a virtual 20th of May celebration. This date is the anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation's announcement in Tallahassee. The 20th of May virtual event includes special video presentations, activities for families to do at home, and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.


20th of May Commemoration Remarks from Florida's Secretary of State, Laurel M. Lee


A message from Mrs. Althemese Barnes

Mrs. Althemese Barnes, the Founder and Director of the John G. Riley Center/Museum, our co presenter of this commemoration since 2001, discusses the importance of this day to the African American community in Tallahassee. 


Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

For many years at the Emancipation Day celebration, Mr. Brian Bibeau has portrayed General Edward McCook during a dramatic reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This year we are honored to have a number of our community members join him in reading the Emancipation Proclamation. Download a transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation or turn on closed captioning in the video and follow along as they read this important document.



Freedom Beat

One of the 2019-2020 Florida Folklife Apprenticeship awards went to Master artist Hunter Hill Jr. and apprentice Christopher White of Tallahassee for emancipation drumming. In Florida, the Emancipation Proclamation was announced on the 20th of May, by General Edward McCook at the building that is currently the Knott House Museum. Twentieth of May celebrations are accompanied by a specific drum beat that has been passed down since 1867. In this video, some of the last remaining emancipation drummers share the "freedom beat" with Tallahassee youth.

The Florida Folklife Program documents, presents and preserves Florida’s vibrant folklife and traditional culture. The Folklife Apprenticeship Program supports the sharing of folklife, or Florida’s living traditions, within communities across the state. These awards fund study between a master and apprentice artist, enabling them to work together to share traditional knowledge, skills, and techniques.



Freedom Soapbox

Step up and give history a voice!

“The soapbox speech originates from the days when speakers would elevate themselves to an audience by standing on a wooden crate, or soapbox, to make an impromptu speech about a political topic or community issue. This speech gives the opportunity to persuade the audience to understand, care, act, vote, or speak out on an issue that affects the community.”
From: Project Soapbox,

We invite the public, young and old alike, to read a short testimonial chosen from diverse writers describing attempted escapes, depicting daily life as a slave, and making social commentary on the conditions of slavery before and after emancipation. This interactive program creates awareness about Slave Narratives as well as give the public a chance to “give history a voice."

Click here to download the excerpts to read aloud. Find your favorite; stand at your own home; proclaim the words describing their experience, take a video with your phone, post it on your Facebook page, tag @KnottHouseMuseum, and we will share your video on our page on Saturday, May 24.


Virtual 20th of May Quilt

As part of the Knott House Museum presence in the 20th of May celebration, the community is invited to participate in the making of a quilt that represents the celebration of freedom for all Americans.  This year, the quilt will be virtual.

Quilt making is a functional art practice that has a long history in most cultures around the world. In America, quilt traditions of colors, patterns and style have been blended from the many cultures that have influenced American history. Quilts are often very personal items for the use by the family or community.

Click here to download a template showing the sizes of pieces to make a quilt square for the virtual 20th of May quilt. The center of the square has the logo for the 20th of May: Emancipation in Florida commemoration. If you prefer, you can use the back of the square, which is blank. Trace around the triangles to cut them out of colored construction paper or magazine pages. If you'd rather, use markers to color the white triangles. It is up to you. Glue the triangles to the 5 by 5 inch square. The ends of the triangles will overlap. Then, sign your name to the quilt square.

To take a picture, place your square on a flat surface with bright light. Hold your camera/phone looking straight down at the quilt square to take the photograph. Please be aware that you may cast a shadow onto the square and need a flash. Place the photo of your square in the comments or message them to We will crop the background out of the image so all that is left is the quilt square. Then, we will place everyone's pictures into a quilt that will remind us of our freedom and our togetherness as a community. On May 21, 2020, we will post the quilt on the Knott House Museum Facebook page.


Visit for additional fun activities and tours.


Community Supporters

The Museum of Florida History and John G. Riley Museum thank the following organizations and businesses for their support of the 20th of May commemoration.

City of Tallahassee
Council on Culture and the Arts
Friends of the Museums of Florida History, Inc.
Hopping, Green & Sams, P.A.
Sonny’s BBQ
Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency



Community Partners

Ash Gallery
Black Archives at the Union Bank
Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network
Florida Division of Library and Information Services
Florida Historic Capitol Museum
Goodwood Museum and Gardens
Leon Rifles Historical Reenactors
LeRoy Collins Leon County Public Library System
Meek-Eaton Black Archives and Research Center and Museum
Smith-Williams Service Center, City of Tallahassee
Tallahassee Museum
Tallahassee Urban League
Taylor House Museum of Historic Frenchtown
The Grove Museum
The 2nd Infantry Regiment United States Colored Troops Living History Association
Walker-Ford Community Center, City of Tallahassee


Sponsored in part by the State of Florida through the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture