On June 19, Gulfport celebrates Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day in 1865 that enslaved people living in Galveston, TX received news of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all people held as slaves in Confederate states would now be free. The Proclamation had gone into effect on January 1, 1863, but the news did not arrive in Galveston until a full 30 months later, when Federal troops took control of the city. The momentous and long-delayed message was greeted by the newly freed Galvestonians with prayer, feasting, singing and dancing – the origins of today’s Juneteenth celebrations.
While Texas takes the lead in this tale, many locales across the country have their own distinct stories commemorating the end of slavery and the arrival of hard-won freedom for enslaved Black Americans. Florida Emancipation Day, for instance, dates to May 20, 1865, when the forces of General Edward M. McCook raised the United States flag over the capitol building in Tallahassee and declared the Emancipation Proclamation to be in full force in Florida. May 20 has been celebrated in Tallahassee ever since with processions, picnics, readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and freedom drumming – a unique custom first created when Black Tallahasseeans took up the drums left behind by Federal troops and forged a new “freedom beat” to mark the occasion.
Closer to home, Florida Emancipation Day has been marked by other celebrations, from a 1906 “mammoth picnic” that brought Black celebrants from as far a Tampa and Manatee County to Gulfport (then known as Veterans City), to the 1949 grand opening of Paradise Park, a segregated attraction meant to provide Black people access to Silver Springs. Florida folklore scholar Jerrilyn McGregor has described how Maypole dances, part of springtime celebrations in many communities in Pinellas County, intertwined the ideas of rebirth and new beginnings with the idea of freedom embodied in Florida Emancipation Day.
Other local celebrations have focused on January 1, the day the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in the Confederate states, celebrating with parades, feasts and speeches. In 1916, an Emancipation Day banquet was held to honor former slaves, now community elders, living in or near St. Petersburg. Later in the century, church leaders worked together, often with the support of the NAACP, to organize talks from inspiring speakers whose themes evolved with the times, ranging from the importance of education to the work of youth activists in the Civil Rights movement.
So how did Juneteenth, originally a Texas-based holiday, gain national significance? One answer is that it traveled with Black Texans as they followed the path of the Great Migration, the movement of more than 6 million Black Americans out of the South and into the North, Midwest,and West in the fifty years following World War I. The portability of this custom, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. has suggested, means that beyond remembering the events of June 19, 1865, Juneteenth also serves as “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom, and inculcating rising generation with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.”
Another answer dates back to June of 1968, when, just a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and King’s widow, Corretta Scott King, planned a Junteenth celebration in Washington, D.C. The celebration marked the close of the Poor People’s March for economic justice that King had been planning when he was murdered.
In a poignant moment of hope and despair, of celebration in the face of struggle, this occasion captured what journalist Vann R. Newkirk II calls the “dizzying contradiction” at the core of Juneteenth, which is both “second Independence Day and a reminder of ongoing oppression.”
Paulette Jones, founder of the Midtown Celebrity Club and one of three community leaders who have organized Juneteenth celebrations in St. Pete since 1992, echoes this sentiment. In a 2017 interview, she told The Weekly Challenger, “We want [the community] to know the importance of keeping hope alive, and we want our kids to know about our community leaders and the importance of education. There have been people that have died in order for us to have the right to vote, and it’s important that we acknowledge this.”
The many ways in which Floridians past and present honor the enormous significance of Emancipation reflects the fact that no one story can tell it all, and that the struggle to gain full freedom and protection under the law for all Americans is not yet over. One more step down this road may soon be accomplished: the Florida House is set to vote on a bill next session that would recognize both May 20 and June 19 as state holidays.
The Kiwanis Club of Gulfport hosts a Juneteenth celebration on June 19 with live music, vendors and more. Visit fb.com/gulfportkiwanis for details.