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20th of May Commemoration

20th of May Logo


Presented by the Knott House Museum and the John G. Riley Museum

 A special thanks to our Community Partners and Community Supporters for their generosity.

For a list of events in the Tallahassee community throughout the month of May click here.


2021 Virtual Commemoration of 20th of May—Emancipation in Florida.

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 the announcement of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee. The 20th of May virtual event includes special video presentations, activities for families to do at home, a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the premiere of the film, Freedom Drumming



Dr. Aron Myers, the Executive Director of the John G. Riley Center/Museum, the co-presenter of this commemoration since 2001, discusses the importance of the 20th of May to the African American community in Tallahassee.


For many years at the Emancipation Day celebration, Mr. Brian Bibeau has portrayed General Edward McCook during a dramatic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This year, we are honored to have community leaders from across the state join him in reading the Emancipation Proclamation. Click here to download a transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation or turn on closed captioning in the video to follow along as they read this important document.


One of the 2019-2020 Florida Folklife Apprenticeship awards went to Master artist Hunter Hill Jr. of Tallahassee for emancipation drumming. This program keeps traditional knowledge alive by passing it to an apprentice. The next year, John G. Riley Museum continued this project by inviting others in the community to learn the freedom beat. This new documentary explores history behind the drumming and the success of the emancipation drumming program.

Youth Commemorate the 20th of May—Emancipation in Florida

The 2nd Infantry USCT Living History Association held the annual Student Essay and Art Contests between March 13 and April 23, 2021.  These contests are open each year to all students—public, private, and home school. The purpose of the contests are to share the historical significance of the Emancipation Proclamation and other contributions to end slavery, particularly in the State of Florida. Congratulations to all students on a job well done! Click on the links below to see the winners and their entries.


Art winners from elementary students

 Essay winners from middle and high school students


The History of 20th of May

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the rebelling Southern states.

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...."

Emancipation Proclamation

It was more than two years later at the end of the Civil War, on May 10, 1865, that Union Brigadier General Edward M. McCook arrived in the state capital of Florida, 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, located four blocks from the State Capitol. On May 20, after official control of the region was transferred to Union forces, he declared the Emancipation Proclamation in effect. That same day an announcement arrived in Tallahassee sent by Major General Quincy A. Gillmore via train from Jacksonville.  General Gillmore's Special Order Number 63 noted that "the people of the black race are free citizens of the United States."


Notice in the Floridian and Journal, May 20, 1865 regarding the Emancipation Proclamation


Newly freed slaves celebrated this announcement with a picnic at Bull's Pond, which is located in Tallahassee and today called Lake Ella. Since that first celebration in 1865, communities in Tallahassee have annually celebrated May 20th as Emancipation Day, and today, activities still are held throughout the city.


“Yesterday was a great day with the Freedmen. It was the anniversary of Gen. McCook’s General Order announcing their freedom, based on Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863. At an early hour, they commenced coming into town and by 9 o’clock the streets were pretty well crowded….the procession marched up Main street, with the U.S. flag flying at intervals along their ranks. During their march, and all along the road out to the speaking ground, the air was frequently rent with cheers raised through the whole line….In spite of the efforts of the head men to keep them out of the lines, the women would fall in at different places, not being willing that the men should have all the “fun.” The procession arrived at the ground near Bull’s Pond, about a mile from the town, at 11 o’clock, where some time was consumed in arranging everything preparatory to the commencement of the speaking.”

Excerpt from the Semi-Weekly Floridian, May 21, 1867


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



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