‘These are soldiers:’ Emancipation Day Celebration to honor Blount County’s black Union soldiers
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This community will get the opportunity on Saturday to show honor and respect for the 80 known black Union soldiers of the Civil War who called Blount County home.
The Emancipation Day Celebration will take place beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at Mt. Gilead Cemetery, located at the intersection of Rankin Road and Hannum Street in Alcoa. The public is invited.
A committee consisting of Blount County historians Becky B. Darrell, George Lane, Shirley Carr Clowney, Ronald Coffin and Ken Cornett has been planning the event since March. Darrell said the names of all 80 black Union soldiers will all be read aloud.
One of the soldiers in particular, Quartermaster Sgt. Thomas Lillard, will receive special recognition. He is buried at Mt. Gilead and his headstone had been lying on the ground for years before being placed upright recently. A wreath will be laid at his gravesite.
Many of the African-Americans who served during the Civil War were part of the African-American Union regiments in the latter part of the war. Most served in the 1st United States Colored Heavy Artillery, which was formed in Knoxville.
The day’s events will include an invocation by the Rev. Dr. Willa Estell, pastor of St. Paul AME Zion Church in Maryville, a reading of a joint proclamation by the local mayors, a Walk of Respect by the Buffalo Soldiers, a re-enactment group from Knoxville and a presentation by the speaker, Dr. Aaron Astor of Maryville College.
The program is entitled, “Freedom is not Free: Quartermaster Sgt. Thomas Lillard and Blount County’s Black Union Soldiers Who Fought for Freedom, Country and Citizenship.”
Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell, Alcoa Mayor Don Mull, Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor, state Rep, Bob Ramsey, state Sen. Doug Overbey and state Rep. Art Swann are expected to attend. Winners in the student art and essay contests will be recognized.
Darrell, a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, was conducting inventory of veterans’ graves years ago and got interested in Blount County’s veterans and how many there are buried at Mt. Gilead. That was back in 2006. Since then she has done extensive research on the black soldiers here.
“This is a subject not many people know about,” she said. “I just felt like it was an important part of history that isn’t being documented.”
There is great significance to this event being held in early August. Today (Aug. 8), 150 years ago, slaves were freed by Gov. Andrew Johnson. His personal slaves were freed in Greeneville on that day in 1863, seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, on Jan. 1, 1863.
There is a display at the Blount County Public Library that includes lots of information on blacks in this community and their contributions.
Lillard was born in McMinn County, but he and his wife Maria Evans settled in Maryville before 1870, Darrell discovered in her research. He served Maryville in a number of ways, as an alderman, a member of the board of education and he was involved in the establishment of the Freedman’s Normal Institute.
The stories are intriguing, Darrell said of these men. They deserve our attention, she and the others believe.
“These are soldiers — they are our local soldiers from the Civil War who have never been acknowledged or honored in any way,” this historian said. “They need to be shown respect.”