Call To Make Use
Of Social Media
Seen As Way To
Reach The Young
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
For some communities, "Freedom Day" may come on July 4. But for the black community in East Tennessee and surrounding areas, the true celebration of freedom comes on Aug. 8.
On Friday and Saturday, the African American Heritage Alliance sponsored the "Echoes of Emancipation: One Region, Many Voices" conference at Tusculum College.
The conference focused on the value of passing on and preserving family and community history.
Among the highlights of that history is the Aug. 8 celebration, which has its roots in Greeneville, according to a panel discussion Saturday entitled "August 8th Emancipation Celebrations and African American Resilience in East Tennessee."
Participating in the panel were local historians Bill Murrah, Randi Nott and Gene Maddox, along with Andre Canty, of Knoxville, and Ned Arter, of Louisville, Ky.
Murrah, who acted as moderator, introduced the concept of an Aug. 8 celebration as somewhat unique to this region.
AUG. 8 HISTORY
Across the United States, there are a variety of dates celebrated as the day of emancipation. For many, it is Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, however. It was October of 1864 before Andrew Johnson, then military governor of Tennessee, emancipated slaves across the state.
But it was on Aug. 8, 1863 that he requested manumission for the slaves in his household, those that Nott referred to during Saturday's discussion as "the other Johnson family."
Nott shared pictures and stories of the Johnson slaves, each having made his or her mark on history.
Andrew Johnson purchased Dolly and Sam, who were half-siblings, in Greeneville when they were young teenagers.
Dolly later had three children: two daughters, Elizabeth and Florence, and a son, William Andrew.
Sam later had nine children: eight daughters and one son.
It was Sam Johnson who would go on to emphasize the day he received his own freedom -- Aug. 8 -- as a day for the African American community to celebrate together, according to Murrah.
Murrah explained that, today, the celebration is held in at least 60 towns and cities across several states.
"We have wondered, 'How did the 8th of August get spread to the different communities?'" he said. "I came across a 1921 newspaper article saying Sam Johnson worked for a long time and was successful in having the day set aside in this region as Emancipation Day."
In fact, he was so successful in this endeavor that, for several years, entire trains were rented for people to travel to Greeneville and Johnson City to celebrate Aug. 8, Murrah said.
In 1900, the celebration spread to Knoxville.
By the 1930s, thousands were participating. It was a day off work for many, and even became a day when the black community could access a popular public park in Knoxville that was otherwise segregated.
Murrah related it to a candle flame being passed across states and down through generations.
"We still are benefiting from it today," he said.
PATH TO FREEDOM
Gene Maddox said he learned of the Aug. 8 celebrations when he moved to Greeneville as a young boy. By that time, the early celebrations drawing thousands had become something of a legend, he said.
In the 1920s and 1930s, it was difficult for the black community to access venues, so they often celebrated in the Bernard No. 2 tobacco warehouse then located next door to the Andrew Johnson Homestead on South Main Street, he said.
[Editor's Note: The century-old warehouse was destroyed in an arson fire in August 2008.]
"It was the beginning to the path to freedom," Maddox said of Aug. 8.
"We've always continuously celebrated that day because it was so important. We're still celebrating it, and we will continue celebrating it in the future."
Ned Arter, a descendant of Sam Johnson, also mentioned how Murrah and Nott's research into the Johnson family and the Aug. 8 celebrations led him to realize he was in possession of an artifact historians had thought lost to time -- a cane engraved with the names William Andrew Johnson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Roosevelt invited William to visit the White House after reading an article by Ernie Pyle in 1937, in which William, a popular chef, lamented not being able to meet the president during his recent visit to Knoxville.
During the visit to the White House, Roosevelt treated William as an honored guest, giving him the engraved cane as a gift.
Andre Canty, of Knoxville's Highlander Research and Education Center, concluded the presentation with a call to make use of this "cultural capital."
If thousands could gather to celebrate Aug. 8 in the 1920s and 1930s by word-of-mouth only, Canty emphasized the greater outreach that could come today through use of social media.
"My task is to bring it all home and address why this is important to the people in this room, outside this room, and everywhere else in the South," he said.
Although he did not discover the Aug. 8th tradition until adulthood, Canty said he now sees it as a birthright, a source of pride and a motivation to fight.
The conference concluded late Saturday afternoon with a message from Dr. George White, associate professor of history and philosophy at York College. Jamaica, N.Y.
Dr. White spoke on "Praying with Our Feet: August 8th, Crossing Boundaries, and the Ongoing March to Freedom."
Several who heard his address praised it as exceptional, reaching the audience with humor and thorough research.
"Remarkable," said Lizzie Watts in reflecting on the conference during a reception at the General Morgan Inn on Saturday night.
She described White's message as focusing on Harriet Tubman's life and influence as one woman.
Tubman (1820-1913), who was born into slavery, escaped to the North and freedom via the "Underground Railway" and returned to the South often to help other slaves escape. She devoted her life to the abolitionist cause.
"It does take each one of us to step up to the plate," Watts summarized White's message. "We were, we are and we will be."
Dr. Beth Vanlandingham, of Carson-Newman University, was a key event organizer.
"I think we inspired people to see how important the history of African Americans is to this region and how history can help people mobilize for the issues that confront us today," Vanlandingham said.
"History can help you understand how you can have the courage to face what you are facing today."