By Claude Kenneson
According to Bertram Groene, in 1860, the year before the beginning of the Civil War, Tallahassee proper had 889 slaves, 46 free blacks and 997 whites. Leon County had 8,200 slaves and 2,197 whites, one of the largest discrepencies between slaves and whites in the South. The majority of the people were farmers while the bulk of the slaves and owners lived on the plantations. (See Antebellum Tallahassee, pages 46-47). Truly, Tallahassee and Leon County were part of the “Cotton Kingdom.”
There are many dates that historians claim for the end of the Civil War: April 9, 1865 and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox; April 18, 1865 and the surrender of Joseph Johnston’s troops at Durham, North Carolina; the surrender of the Confederate raider Shenandoah later in the summer. It is notable that one of the dates proposed for the end of the conflict is May 10, 1865 when President Andrew Johnson declared an end of military resistance, the same day that Brigadier General Edward McCook and 300 Union troops accepted the surrender of Florida from Confederate Sam Jones and to send the paroled soldiers back home.
On May 14, Union Major General Quincy Gilmore issued an order that officially emancipated all slaves in Florida and directed Union commanders throughout the state to inform them that they had been freed. On May 19, General McCook sent officers to homes and plantations in Leon County with orders to break the news; the next day, a group of slaves that had assembled at the U.S. military post at Centerville were also notified and set free. Also on May 20, 1865 the announcement was made to the inhabitants of Tallahassee (Source: Mary Catherin May). The Floridian of May 22, 1877 reported that McCook announced from his headquarters, the Thomas Holmes Hagner House (now known as the Knott House), President Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation, as being in effect, and that the “colored man” must be regarded as free and independent. Another source says that McCook actually read the Emancipation Proclamation to the assembled freed people. (“Yonder Come Day”: Religious Dimensions of the Transition From Slavery To Freedom in Florida by Robert L. Hall in The Florida Historical Quarterly, p. 420). Also, on that date, we are told, that the U.S. flag was raised over the State Capitol with a salute of a gun for every state in the Union. Participating in the ceremony were several officers of the U.S. Navy from the ships Segamore and Spirea, anchored at St. Marks, McCook’s Union troops, a number of newly freed blacks, and some citizens of Tallahassee. One observer noted that “The soldiers and Negroes were in ecstasy; the citizens were not so enthusiastic.” ( For the story see New York Times, June 18, 1865, p. 2: “The Surrender of the Rebels in Florida”). Ellen Call Long later recalled: “The flag of the United States was raised on the same day of the proclamation, and a saturnalia was held for the negroes. The town negroes were more ready for the change of status. There was a broad grin on every countenance; shaking of hands, and a general air of extreme satisfaction…” When the U.S. flag was lowered at sunset, two hundred guns were fired. (From Florida Breezes, page 381-382). McCook’s work was accomplished and on May 21, he departed Tallahassee to return to Macon, Georgia. General Benjamin C. Tilghman was sent to relieve him. On May 24, 1865, Union Headquarters in Jacksonville issued General Order Number 22, an order that placed the entire state under martial law.
The first anniversary of Emancipation occurred on May 20, 1866. It was led by the Freedmen’s Benevolent Society who with townsfolks and guests celebrated the day of “universal freedom” with fife and drum. (Semi Weekly Floridian, May 22, 1866). In 1867, 2,000 former slaves processed to Bull’s Pond (today’s Lake Ella) from the U.S. military camp in town, led by the U.S. flag, the Benevolent Society and the Independent Blues. Here they held a day long picnic and a political rally. ( Semi Weekly Floridian, May 21, 1867). In 1871, Rev. Charles H. Pearce and members of the A.M.E. Church celebrated Emancipation Day with a party at Bull’s pond. On some occasions large crowds of African-American visitors arrived from the east by train to join the celebration here; on other occasions some from here went to Monticello or elsewhere for a picnic. In addition to the annual celebration of Emancipation, at least since 1871, the tradition of decorating Union soldiers’ graves in Old City Cemetery has been part of the observance ( Semi Weekly Floridian, May 30, 1871).
Emancipation Day on May 20, through the years since 1865, has been observed in numerous ways and places. There have been carrying of flags, parades, bands, processions, speeches by prominent black politicians and spokesmen, choosing of a queen, picnics with dinner on church grounds, with singing and drum beating, etc. Emancipation Day has been observed at Testerina Primitive Baptist Church, St. Phillips A.M.E. Church, Munree community, Dawkins Pond. (I Declare! by Malcolm Johnson, pages 71-72). Other communities observing it have been Chaires, Lake Hall, Spring Hill, Macon, Bradfordville, and Buckland. (Tallahassee Magazine, May/June 1994, page 30).
The 2019 celebration was held on Monday, May 20; this year’s celebration was held virtually because of the pandemic. The John G. Riley Museum Civil War Commemorative Service grave decoration was held at the Old City Cemetery. This was followed by the dramatic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Speeches and music were presented on the front steps of the Knott House Museum, as has been customary for a number of years. After the program, free lunch and family activities were available in Lewis Park across the street from the Knott house. In the afternoon free admission to local African American history sites were provided.
Last year I was surprised to learn from Mary May, a long time friend and member of the Tallahassee Historical Society, that Emancipation Day was often held more than one day a year. She sent me an article from the Semi Weekly Floridian, January 2, 1872 indicating that the Emancipation Celebration was also often held on January 1 or New Year’s Day. There are numerous other articles of subsequent observations that Mary discovered. Upon further research I also learned that Watch Night or Freedom’s Eve was a result of the African American community gathering in church on December 31 to await the date of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln on January 1, 1863 rather than the arrival of the New Year. It is also interesting to note that while Florida mainly celebrates May 20 as Emancipation Day, in Texas it didn’t happen until June 15th. Celebrated then, it is called Juneteenth. However, African Americans here as well as other places in the South are known to also observe it.