Seen For The 149th
BY KEN LITTLE
Sunshine, fellowship, music and history were highlights this weekend of Greeneville's 8th of August Freedom Day Celebration.
The event, hosted every year by the George Clem Multicultural Association (GCMA), attracted a big crowd Saturday to the John J. Jones Memorial Park, in the Wesley Heights community.
On Sunday, a tombstone dedication ceremony at New Hope Presbyterian Cemetery in Tusculum and a related church service at Shiloh Cumberland Presbyterian Church honored two African-American soldiers buried there -- Civil War veteran Luther Crum and Benjamin Harrison Smith, who served in the U.S. Army during World War I. (Please see related article on this page.)
The observance is in its 149th year and celebrates the date that future President Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves while he was serving as military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War.
HOW OBSERVANCE BEGAN
The tradition of memorializing the Aug. 8 date was started by Samuel Johnson, one of Johnson's former slaves.
Greeneville's Andrew Johnson freed his slaves on Aug. 8, 1863, according to Sam Johnson's recollections. Among those freed was Samuel Johnson's half-sister, Dolly, and her young son, William.
Andrew Johnson's action came more than seven months after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan.1, 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not cover Tennessee "because they felt Tennessee had made enough progress," said Gene Maddox, GCMA president and coordinator of this year's Freedom Day event.
As a contested area in the Civil War, Tennessee was the only state "in conflict" not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, Maddox said.
In October 1864, Johnson freed all slaves in Tennessee.
"When he freed all his own personal slaves, it was the beginning of emancipation in Tennessee," Maddox said.
On Saturday, sunny skies and attractions such as face-painting and train rides for children, a talent show and plenty of good food attracted a sizable gathering to the park.
"Everything is going fine. We've got a record crowd," Maddox said.
Maddox is already looking forward to the 2013 Freedom Day celebration.
"Next year will be the 150th anniversary, and we want to get all of Greeneville involved," he said.
The annual event remains significant to Greeneville's African-American community.
"It's something that [has] happened continuously since the Civil War. This is the 149th celebration. It spread all over the state, and now it is only celebrated in Greeneville, Bristol and Johnson City," Maddox said.
Citing newspaper accounts of the day, Maddox said Andrew Johnson addressed a Freedom Day crowd in Greeneville on Aug. 8, 1871.
"In other times, each individual community from here to Memphis celebrated it," he said. "This is where it started, and that's why we maintain it."
A MEMORABLE EVENT
Angela Campbell, a GCMA member, said that Freedom Day has special significance in Greeneville.
"Being that [Andrew Johnson] was our president, it's very important to us," Campbell said.
The annual celebration "is like a homecoming event" to many people in the community, and Greeneville natives who now live elsewhere.
"A lot of family reunions are specifically designed and scheduled around this time," Campbell said.
People look forward to the celebration, which included a well-attended street dance Friday night on Davis Street.
"We had an outstanding turnout," she said.
Other Freedom Day events Saturday included a portrayal of Minerva Clem by Crystal Montgomery and performances by praise dance teams from area churches.
Afternoon entertainment featured a performance by the local band "JB and the Honey Beans."
GCMA scholarships were also awarded Saturday.
"I think it was one of the very best celebrations we ever had," Maddox said.
CANE'S ORIGINS REVEALED
Ned Arter, of Louisville, Ky., was a special guest at Saturday's Freedom Day observance.
Arter, a descendant of Sam Johnson, came to be in possession of a cane presented to Dolly Johnson's son, William Andrew Johnson, in 1937 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
William Johnson moved to Knoxville after the death of his mother and became a well-known chef.
In 1937, the famous newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle, perhaps best known for his dispatches as a war correspondent during World War II, traveled to Knoxville to interview William Johnson, believing him to be the last living person to have been the slave of a U.S. president.
Johnson shared that his only regret in life was not meeting Roosevelt when the president had visited Knoxville the year before to dedicate a new Tennessee Valley Authority dam.
Roosevelt read Pyle's article and invited William Johnson to visit him at the White House.
As a parting gift, Roosevelt presented his guest with a silver-headed cane with design etchings on it and "Franklin D. Roosevelt" engraved on one side and "William Andrew Johnson" on the other.
Subsequent newspaper articles suggest that the cane never left Johnson's side. Johnson made several special appearances around Knoxville to display the cane, and he became a local celebrity.
William Johnson died in 1943. An obituary said that his scrapbook and cane were in transit to the Andrew Johnson Museum in Greeneville.
That wasn't the case, although the scrapbook was eventually located in the Andrew Johnson Presidential Museum and Library at Tusculum College.
Knoxville amateur historian and researcher Bill Murrah, who also spoke at the Freedom Day event, found a newspaper article that credited Sam Johnson as the primary promoter of the Aug. 8 celebrations.
He began to research Sam Johnson's living relatives, which led him to Arter, Sam Johnson's great-great-great grandson, in Louisville.
Arter learned from Murrah that he is a descendant of Sam Johnson, Andrew Johnson's former slave. Arter told Murrah that he had a cane in his closet with Roosevelt's name on it, but did not know anything about its origin.
Arter was amazed to learn about the cane's history and its significance to his family.
He repeated that sentiment Saturday while speaking briefly at Freedom Day, Maddox said.
"He said he was really happy to come here. He was just delighted to have found this history, and from now on, he will come back and become a part of this," he said.
Many of the slaves freed by Andrew Johnson moved to the Knoxville area, including William Johnson. Much later, Arter's father was born in Greeneville, but moved to Knoxville.
EVENTS ON WEDNESDAY
Arter will be part of events on Wednesday marking Freedom Day, Maddox said.
The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site will mark Freedom Day with a special exhibit and a program at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 8, in the Andrew Johnson Visitors Center, at 101 North College St.
The 45-minute program will be presented in two parts in the theater at the Visitors Center.
Park Guide Daniel Luther, a well-known Andrew Johnson presenter, will guide visitors through a timeline of American slavery in the first part of the program.
The second half of the presentation will "examine the circumstances that led Andrew Johnson to move forcefully to embrace emancipation in August of 1863," according to a National Park Service release.
The program is free to the public.
SCRAPBOOK ON DISPLAY
Through October, the Andrew Johnson Visitor Center will feature an exhibit containing copied images from William Johnson's scrapbook.
Johnson was the youngest of Andrew Johnson's slaves. Along with his family, William Johnson was emancipated by Andrew Johnson on Aug. 8, 1863.
Johnson first gained experience in commercial baking working with his mother, Dolly, in Andrew Johnson's Tailor Shop, mere yards from the exhibit honoring the former slave, according to the National Park Service.
"We are very fortunate to be able to glimpse into this amazing man's life, which spanned slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow," Lizzie Watts, superintendent of the Andrew Johnson Historic Site, said in the news release.
"We are also grateful to Tusculum College for sharing this information with us for our event," Watts said.