While Juneteenth — celebrated June 19 — has recently gained more national notoriety as the day the final announcement in Texas was made to free the last slaves in the nation, politicians, civil rights leaders and history buffs want statewide recognition of a date more important to Florida’s history: May 20.
On May 20, 1865, just 11 days after the end of the Civil War, a general with the Union army read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, formally freeing slaves in Florida. While not every slave in the state was free as of that reading, it represented the moment when freedom would be enforced in the state.
On Thursday, 156 years later, a group of Black Civil War reenactors read the proclamation again on the steps of City Hall in downtown Orlando to commemorate the day.
“Juneteenth is good if you live in Texas, but we don’t live in Texas,” said John Russell, who started the reenactment group in the 1990s. “We need to celebrate what happened in Florida, when it happened and why it happened because that is very important for people in Florida. This is our Emancipation Day.”
Russell’s group, representing the U.S. Colored Cavalry, has gathered to honor May 20 for the past six years but had always traveled to Tallahassee to do it where the proclamation was read. But this year, he wanted to bring it to other parts of Florida. The 3 p.m. presentation at City Hall followed an earlier ceremony in Lakeland.
City Commissioner Barkari Burns organized the Orlando ceremony.
“Our society has come a long way since 1865 and we still have a long way to go,” he said. “But I’m glad to stand here as a Black elected official on the steps of City Hall in Florida’s fourth largest city to acknowledge the lives of our ancestors.”
The announcement in 1865 was made two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was signed. While that should have freed slaves everywhere, it was largely not enforced in Florida until after the Union general arrived with members of the U.S. Colored Troops, which included members of the Colored Cavalry, the Colored Infantry and other units.
Though the date has been recognized in other parts of the state in the past, this was the first time in recent memory that it had been celebrated in Orlando. The acknowledgement in Orlando was part of a campaign led by the Orange County Florida Branch of the NAACP, said Tiffany Hughes, president of the local chapter of the civil rights group.
The effort started with just getting the Orange County government to honor the day but later, it was expanded to all of the city governments. Leaders in eight of Orange County’s 13 cities — including Orlando, Apopka, Eatonville and Winter Park — signed proclamations acknowledging the day.
“That’s significant, to not have known that you were free,” Hughes said. “They waited two years later and worked two years more and were enslaved and beaten and ridiculed for two more years and many years after that through segregation and Jim Crow. We just wanted to celebrate freedom in Orange County and recognize Florida Emancipation Day.”
At the end of Orlando’s ceremony, Burns said he would like to see the reenactors visit again in May 2022. Hughes said the local NAACP would try again next year to convince all 13 municipalities to acknowledge the day.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, that would have honored May 20 and made Juneteenth a holiday failed to become law in the most recent legislative session.