Blue pinwheels lined the half-mile route from Depot Park to the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, but the 40 or so people making the “Freedom Walk” trek Saturday allowed Vivian Filer to lead the way. They sang when she sang, and they paused when she paused.
“Freedom! Freedom!” the octogenarian sang.
“That’s too high,” she said. “We’re going to restart it because that’s too high for me. And since I’m the leader and allow this, I’m going to start over.
“Freedom! Freedom! Oh, freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.”
As founder, CEO and board chairwoman of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center (CCMCC), Filer served as the driving force of “Florida’s Emancipation: Celebrating Our Ancestors,” a day-long event of music, poetry, dance and community marking a 158-year-old milestone in Florida history.
Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially declared the freedom of America’s enslaved people on Jan. 1, 1863, it wasn’t enforced until the American Civil War ended and Union troops arrived in states formerly controlled by the Confederacy to accept their counterparts’ surrender.
Union Brig. Gen. Edward M. McCook formally announced the proclamation in Tallahassee on May 20, 1865. Nearly a month later, on June 19, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger signed an order informing the people of Texas, the last Confederate state reached by Union troops. June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth since 1866, but the date didn’t become a federal holiday until 2021.
The CCMCC formerly observed May 20 and June 19 together, but board members’ participation with the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network helped them realize the importance of ensuring the state’s official emancipation day is known and recognized by residents.
“We want to touch more people,” Filer said. “We want to get the message out. History is something that is precious. It can’t be redone. It has to be told the way it is, and we think the more our children know it, the better off they are.”
Inside the museum, event attendees viewed relics of early African American life, including clothing, furniture and tools. Members of the Gainesville Handweavers Guild demonstrated the use of a loom and a spinning wheel. Outside, volunteers placed white roses on 24 crosses bearing the names of Black Alachua County residents who served with Union forces during the Civil War.
CCMCC board member Kenneth Nunn explained the significance of the tri-colored Black Liberation, or Pan-African, flag many attendees waved.
“Some people say that red is for the blood of the people, the black is for the people and the green is for the land which was then colonies of European nations they wanted to free,” Nunn said.
Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, created the flag as a symbol of Black unity in 1920, and its color scheme later inspired the flags of African nations upon their independence from colonial rule.
Filer invited Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward to the event, and he read Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862. The mayor also shared his appreciation for county and city commission memberships reflective of the greater community’s diversity.
“We are slowly but surely bending the arc of history in the right direction,” he said.