History of the 20th of May
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...."
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