POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Historians marked the 156th anniversary of Florida’s Emancipation Day with a warning for people to learn from the past to prevent future injustices.
“By commemorating history, we learn from history and we look at what’s happening in our nation today and we may back away from it,” said Clifton Lewis, curator at the L.B. Brown House Museum in Bartow.
Lewis joined members of Buffalo Soldiers Florida, Inc. at the site of the Buffalo Soldier marker on Lake Wire Thursday to commemorate Florida Emancipation Day.
On May 20th, 1865, Union General Edward McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation aloud in Tallahassee, marking the beginning of the proclamation’s enforcement in Florida.
“May 20th is to Florida what June 19th is to Texas. Those were the dates when the last two confederate states released the slaves,” said Lewis.
Lewis calls the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham’s Lincoln declaration freeing the slaves, the most “consequential executive order ever issued by a president.”
“All persons held as slaves within said designated states and parts of states, are, and henceforward shall be, free,” read Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, who recited the entire proclamation at Thursday’s event.
City commissioner Phillip Walker and Terry Coney, president of the NAACP Lakeland branch, also attended the ceremony.
“We don’t want to repeat history. There is so much of, not only Black history, but so much of history itself that is left out of our schools,” said Richard Wilder, president of Buffalo Soldiers Florida, Inc.
In 1898, three decades after the Emancipation Proclamation began being enforced in Florida, Lakeland’s Lake Wire was home to a camp for the 10th Cavalry, one of four all Black regiments known as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
“That was the first time that the Black man was allowed to join the military for the first time with no other designation,” said Wilder. “No U.S. Colored Troops, no U.S. Colored Cavalry, they were all American fighting men.”
People interested in learning more about Black history in Polk County can attend the L.B. Brown Heritage Festival this Saturday at the L.B. Brown House Museum in Bartow.
Brown was born into slavery but grew up to be a prominent Polk County community and business leader.
The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, Saturday May 22.