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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.

“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


Virtual 20th of May Celebration- May 20, 2020

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


The importance of 20th of May, 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. 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.


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