History

May 20 Is Emancipation Day, Florida's Version of Juneteenth

The 1922 Emancipation Day parade in St. Augustine.
The 1922 Emancipation Day parade in St. Augustine. Photo by Richard Aloysius/State Library and Archives of Florida
Every summer, Americans across the nation celebrate Juneteenth, the annual June 19 holiday that commemorates the official end of slavery in the U.S. On that day in 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the document signed two years earlier that freed the nation's enslaved people.

But in Florida, the date of May 20, 1865, might hold even more significance. One month before Granger made it to Galveston, Union Brigadier Gen. Edward M. McCook stopped in Tallahassee to make a similar announcement. Down the street from the state Capitol at the Hagner House (today the Knott House Museum), McCook declared that all Black people were now free citizens of the United States. The news — which, before the days of mass media and the invention of the telephone, came as a surprise to many — was toasted at a celebratory picnic at Tallahassee's Bull's Pond by those who'd been enslaved.

While the City of Tallahassee has long recognized the date, only a handful of other Florida cities have observed Emancipation Day. This year, Jacksonville, Punta Gorda, St. Augustine, and Monticello are among the cities holding celebrations to commemorate May 20.

Down in South Florida, Juneteenth seems to be more widely recognized than Emancipation Day. Last fall, Miami-Dade County made June 19 a paid holiday for its workers; the cities of North Miami Beach and South Miami have followed suit The NAACP's Tallahassee branch, meanwhile, has called on the Florida Legislature to officially recognize May 20 as Emancipation Day. In a resolution signed in March, branch members said the state's recognition of Juneteenth "while denoting a significant part of history, does not comprehensively and accurately represent Florida’s historical emancipation record."


This spring, State Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando filed a bill that would have made May 20 an official state holiday, in addition to Juneteenth, but the bill died before it could be passed when the regular legislative session ended April 30. 
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb