Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida’s Big Bend

“Our Ancestors Are Talking to Us”: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida’s Big Bend

by Natalie King-Pedroso, PhD

Hill family Emancipation Day celebrationThe legacy of Emancipation Day, also known as “the 20th of May,” has existed over 150 years in many North Florida communities with their large concentrations of descendant populations of the formerly enslaved. That sacred moment in the history of the state honors the arrival of General Edward McCook and Union troops in Tallahassee, as well as the historic announcement from his temporary quarters at the Hagner House—known today as the Knott House—on the “day that freedom cried”: May 20, 1865.  Newly freed men, women, and children gathered to discard the yoke of bondage and oppression, now fully vested with the legal reclamation of their humanity, pondering their next steps in a world of possibilities and uncertainty.

That momentous occasion was marked with celebrations, reflections on hope, and dreams about the future. In 1867, many members of the descendant community in Tallahassee celebrated with a parade and gathered at Bull Pond, now known as Lake Ella. Later, the commemoration was moved to Gum Pond at Winthrop Plantation where it was hosted for fifty-eight years. Then, in 1924, Henry Hill began to host the event on his property. It is only one of the observances devoted to Emancipation Day in the area, and there always have been a number of gatherings—public and private—in the region.

For generations, the celebration of the announcement of freedom was perpetuated by many communities in outlying areas of Florida’s Big Bend. Even today, vestiges of those earlier gatherings have been preserved in descendant communities of North Florida. One of the most stirring renditions of a lasting tradition is the story of the drums and the freedom drumbeat, especially when it is told by Hunter Hill, a descendent of a long line of Emancipation Day drummers in Leon County who have preserved this drumming ritual since 1867. He and many other culture bearers like Althemese Barnes, one of the most significant historic preservationists in Leon County and the state of Florida, continue to give life to important stories related to an Afro-Southern ancestral heritage in this region, especially those time-honored rituals related to 20th of May traditions that include foodways, the oral tradition, and folk cultural practices.

In this region—from Madison County to Jackson County—these special gestures include the Jubilee in Madison County, one of the largest 20th of May celebrations in this area, with a parade and family-oriented activities. In Taylor County, culture bearers like the late Minister Laura Reaves, a minister and teacher who passed away this year at the age of 103, brought those traditions to Taylor County from Madison County, traditions preserved in the Perry area until recently by Sarah Hall, her former student.

In Jefferson County, the Dills Community, a vibrant rural village just north of Monticello, celebrates the 20th of May with families at Mt. Pleasant AME Church. At that site, guests of all ages find fellowship, activities, and delicious food. Among the most popular dishes are the customary Emancipation Day favorites known throughout the region like jelly cakes and tea cakes that have been served for generations with the traditional 20th of May drink, ice-cold lemonade, in the past, made in a barrel.

For years, Nora James and her family would host an event on their property in Havana that would attract over a thousand guests. During their 20th of May celebration in Gadsden County, they did not ask attendees for a cent. Families would even set up tents and spend the day on the property. As they communed with their guests, the James Family also used the opportunity to educate their neighbors by sharing the story of Emancipation Day in Florida.

Wakulla County salutes the past in Shadeville with activity-filled days dedicated to Emancipation Day for citizens in Crawfordville. In the Hyde Park community of Wakulla, one family even gathers on the shores of Wakulla Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, dressed in white to honor the occasion. Jackson County also has begun to create a more prominent presence on Emancipation Day with living history reenactments, field day activities, the traditional maypole plaiting and a festival.

Tallahassee Emancipation Day celebrationLeon County has one of the largest Emancipation Day recognitions in the state. In the morning, there is a commemorative ceremony at the Old City Cemetery that honors the Union dead who sacrificed their lives for freedom. At noon, reenactors representing the US Colored Troops and General Edward McCook gather at the historic Knott House to present the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Throughout the day, activities dedicated to Emancipation Day take place all over the city. Locals also look to the outlying areas as the greatest preservers of 20th of May traditions where descendant communities gather, drawn to the observances by the promise of family, friends, food, and cadences performed by Emancipation Day drummers.

Overall, the aims of the celebrations in all of the communities of the region are to commemorate the spirit of freedom, gather with family and community members, honor ancestors, and educate the region’s diverse communities about the sacred nature of this day of hope.

Contributors: Hunter Hill; John Nelson; Gloria Jefferson-Anderson; John Bailey; Thomas Mitchell; Freddie Franklin; Jacquelyne Seabrooks; Ann Herring; Althemese Barnes; Nora James; Sarah Hall; Ray Mobley, PhD; Ola Sylvia Lamar-Sheffield, PhD; Gabriel Flowers; Byron Dickens; Freddie Franklin; Rosa Richardson; and Rebecca Sloan Dickey.

1 Notes

The title was inspired by a conversation with Dr. Willie Tolliver, a professor at Hunter College and a Floridian with deep roots in Apalachicola, Florida. He remarked during a conversation in February when preparing to host a 20th of May workshop in Apalachicola, “Our ancestors are talking to us!” His heartfelt commentary later became the title of the gathering in February of this year.

2  Althemese Barnes, founder director emeritus of the Riley Center and Museum in Tallahassee, is one of the most significant voices associated with the 20th of May in the state of Florida. Her great-grandmother, Debbie Edwards, possessed a leadership role in Emancipation Day events in one of Tallahassee’s outlying communities. From her youth, Barnes recalls a reference to Emancipation Day as “the day that freedom cried.”

3  Hunter Hill, a retired teacher and venerated elder in Leon County, was awarded the prestigious 2022 Florida Folklife Heritage Award by the Florida Department of State for “[c]arrying on a tradition that first began in 1865” and “working to teach a new generation the 20th of May drumbeat and to keep its history beating.”