Under tall pecan trees, community members joined hands in song, fried batches of fish and flew Juneteenth flags while honoring the end of slavery in Florida.
Gainesville held two events Friday to celebrate Florida’s Emancipation Day and the start of “Journey to Juneteenth.” The monthlong celebration began on the day slaves in Florida were notified of their freedom by Union General Edward McCook, who read the proclamation at the Knott House in Tallahassee on May 20, 1865. It will end by honoring the day the last slaves in the U.S. heard the proclamation in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865.
Deloris Rentz, the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center’s financial secretary, hosted one of the city’s events, which featured a fish fry, live music, poetry and educational Q&A sessions.
She compared honoring Florida’s Emancipation Day to celebrating birthdays. While we recognize others’, we celebrate ours the most, she said.
“Our biggest celebration is today, because this is our birth and we will celebrate with others,” she said. “But we give greater emphasis to our own celebration.”
About 60 people gathered around folding tables outside the museum to enjoy the fried fish — a staple dish for the Gainesville community spanning over 100 years.
Phillis Filer, a 66-year-old Gainesville resident, said when the enslaved were freed, they wanted to find their ancestors who had been torn away from them. Once they had gotten together, it was a time of sitting down and reveling in each other.
During the program’s final performance, the audience joined hands as they sang along to “Reach Out and Touch,” performed by Evelyn Banks.
“Reach out and touch somebody’s hand,” Banks sang. “Make this world a better place if you can.”
About 40 people gathered around City Hall for another event Friday morning featuring four speakers: Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, Commissioner Reina Saco, Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry and Cotton Club Museum Financial Secretary Deloris Rentz. They heard the Emancipation Proclamation, saw the Juneteenth flag raised and listened to Duncan-Walker reflect on the day’s importance.
“As I journey to this place today, I could not help but wipe away the tears as I traveled across land and property that no doubt had been walked upon by my ancestors and my forefathers who fought, who struggled, who died, enslaved here in Gainesville,” she said.
Saco spoke about how this day was an important lesson for legislators to remember the law is a tool to help the community.
“If there is an injustice, be illegal or not, it is up to us to fix it and to fix it right — not just with words, not just with a proclamation, but with action, with change,” she said.
Porshe Chiles, a 38-year-old UF doctoral student and a Texas native, said the day was essential to help her understand local culture.
Chiles said she thought institutions like UF should recognize May 20 as Emancipation Day in Florida. She suggested UF partner with the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center to find ways to celebrate and spread awareness about the day.
Malcom Askew, a 34-year-old Gainesville resident, said he didn’t know about the event until a friend told him about it two days prior.
He said he appreciated the energy the city put into honoring the day but wished the city promoted the event better; he knew others would have loved to be a part of the celebration.
Contact Jackson Reyes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes
Jackson Reyes is a third-year sports journalism major. He is the Gator's soccer beat reporter and previously worked as a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk. When he's not reporting, he enjoys collecting records and taking long walks on the beach.