May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida


Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.


Emancipated slaves wait in front of the Provost Marshal’s office in Jacksonville about 1864. 

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com


From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: USCT Reenactors at the Knott House Museum
Image Source: Photograph copyright WTXL TV, “2015 Knott House Museum Hosts Emancipation Day Celebration”

Fort Pickens was an island fort just outside Pensacola, Florida that remained in Union hands throughout the war. It is somewhat infamous in some circles as one of the first federal locations where slaves sought refuge from bondage, but were turned back. (This happened after the first rash of Confederate secessions, but before the attack on Fort Sumter). The book Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 by George Buker talks of how the war affected Florida’s western coast. The book notes that as the war progressed, many slaves (also called “contrabands”) escaped, and some sought out the Navy blockaders as a path to freedom. Some slaves joined the U.S. Navy and Army. (During the Civil War, the Union established a naval blockage over southern ports to prevent Confederate commerce with other nations.)

One of the most famous Civil War battles in the state was the Battle of Olustee, also called the Battle of Ocean Pond. It occurred in Baker County, Florida, roughly 50 miles west of Jacksonville, on February 20, 1864. The battle, which included several USCT regiments (54th Massachusetts Infantry, the 8th Infantry USCT {from Pennsylvania}, and the 35th Infantry USCT {from North Carolina}), was a loss for the Union, and a bloody one at that.

So, although General McCook did read the Emancipation Proclamation (EP) in Tallahassee at the time noted, many slaves throughout the state were aware of the EP; an untold, perhaps relatively small number gained freedom as a result of Union occupation or the proximity of Union army and navy forces; and a number of African American soldiers and sailors were involved in military activities in the state. So there is a depth of black Civil War experience in Florida that goes beyond just the reading of the EP on that day in May 1865. Of course, the surrender of Confederate forces and a more widespread Union occupation made the proclamation of freedom into the reality of freedom. But if the “grapevine telegraph” was at all active throughout the state, it was probably abuzz with the idea that freedom might be coming, and McCook confirmed that the rumors and their hopes were true.

Emancipation Day has been observed throughout the state for many years. However, just in the past few days, I have met a handful of Florida residents who were not aware of it. Which is further proof that we must do more to ensure that our history – America’s history – of freedom, emancipation, and service are remembered and commemorated.

Emancipation Day Parade- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s 1
Emancipation Day Parade: Lincolnville, Florida (1920s). Lincolnville was community in St. Augustine, FL that was founded by former slaves after the Civil War.
Image Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

St. Paul A.M.E Church float- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s
St. Paul A.M.E Church float, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Image Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

The Queen and her court- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s)
The Queen and her court, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Image Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

  1. Thanks for the great post. I really like the photo of the kids talking to the re-enactor and looking up at him, perhaps in awe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s