Aug. 8 is a special day for the black community. On that day in 1863, as the Civil War raged, Andrew Johnson, then military governor in Tennessee, freed his personal slaves in Greeneville.
Hall Oldfield Maryville Empowerment (H.O.M.E.) Inc. is presenting the 8th of August Celebration commemorating this day beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at Rest Haven Missionary Baptist Church in Alcoa. Historians Cato and Shirley Carr Clowney, along with the church pastor, Richard Turney, have been instrumental in planning the celebration.
Cato Clowney said, “Each year for at least the last five or six years, Shirley and I have brought people together to work on the 8th of August. We didn’t know that Alcoa and other areas weren’t aware that slaves were freed on Aug. 8 in Tennessee. What we’re trying to do is make the people aware of their freedom.”
Shirley Carr Clowney said, “Years ago, Alcoa did celebrate. They would go into Knoxville to the Chilhowee Park, but that stopped. So Cato and I worked with H.O.M.E. Inc. to revive it here in Blount County.”
Children’s activities, exhibits, food and craft vendors will be on hand at the church until 5 p.m., and door prizes will be distributed throughout the day. A board containing photos of more than 280 notable black individuals, each designated by number, will be displayed with the question, “How many can you name?” The person who correctly names the most will receive a prize.
In addition, “It’s going to be a full day of activities,” Carr Clowney said, including a bus tour of black historic places in Blount County from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Those participating in the tour will view the Stone House near Friendsville, a place reputed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War; the Friends Meetinghouse in Friendsville, due to the sensitivity of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, to the plight of slaves; Hackney’s Chapel Church, where many black residents in this area are buried; the site of the former George Washington Carver School, a black school in Friendsville; and the Maryville Municipal Building to view a portrait of Maryville’s only black mayor, William B. Scott. The cost is $5 per person in advance or $7 the day of the tour. Call 382-1690 or email email@example.com to register.
After returning to Rest Haven Church, Carr Clowney said there is a possibility of having horse and buggy rides beginning at 1:30 p.m. Plans are still being finalized.
“The FBI Traveling Trunk will be on exhibit all day at the church, but at 2 o’clock, Cato will be doing a special presentation,” Carr Clowney said. The mobile “museum” contains symbols of hate and intolerance, including photos, illustrations and relics such as replicas of slave ships, chains that once bound slaves, a mangled piece of the World Trade Center, a charred cross and more — items which are now being used to help teach acceptance and inclusiveness instead of hate and intolerance. The interactive exhibit is sponsored by the East Tennessee Civil Rights Working Group, of which Clowney is a member.
A talent show will begin at 3 p.m. “This will include poetry, liturgical dancing, the explanation of why we celebrate the Emancipation, family groups singing, church groups,” Carr Clowney said. “At 5 o’clock, we top the day off with a fashion show. It’s called ‘The Abundance of Laughter,’ and they are coming from Morristown. There are children, young people and older people serving as models, and the fashions are very, very unique. It is not like a typical fashion show. She uses art items on the clothes, and it’s a fun kind of thing to do, something very unusual for this area.”
No admission will be charged.
President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, seven months before Johnson freed his personal slaves. Carr Clowney explained that Johnson had persuaded the president that “Tennessee wasn’t really all that rebellious — that Tennessee was, in fact, full of innocent Unionists who owned slaves and would be inconvenienced by losing them. So Tennessee was excluded — the only state that was wholly exempt. Johnson and Lincoln believed that saving the Union was more important than the issue of slavery.” In 1865, when the entire state was more securely in Union hands, Johnson issued the order granting all Tennessee slaves their freedom.
By 1871, the day was set aside as a day of celebration in Greeneville, the birthplace of Andrew Johnson, who became the 17th president following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. According to Carr Clowney’s research, on Aug. 8, 1871, “The local blacks celebrated their freedom with a brass-band parade and picnics, and speeches, one of them given by the former President Johnson himself. In 1888, a large delegation of blacks from Knoxville took the train to Greeneville to celebrate with them.”
Her research revealed that after the Civil War (1861-1865), there were numerous dates for such celebrations. Some black communities celebrated the dates of national events, such as the issuance by President Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation, while others celebrated dates when slaves were freed in a local community or state. A National Freedom Day was established by Congress through the work of an African American family in Philadelphia and celebrated on Feb. 1, the date in 1865 that Abraham Lincoln signed the resolution that would become the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment.
By the early 20th century, Aug. 8 was a major event for the black community in Knoxville and Blount County.
Carr Clowney found an article in what was then called The Maryville Daily Times on Jan. 6, 1892, which reported, “‘The Emancipation Celebration’ was in every respect, a grand success. About 200 persons met at the A.M.E. Zion Church, formed a procession and marched down Main Street,” now Broadway Avenue.
The 8th of August was celebrated in Blount County until about 1950. Older residents told Carr Clowney that the 8th was always a festive occasion when children wore new clothes and attended church, and the churches would have carnivals and/or fairs. The black baseball team would play teams from Knoxville and there would be cookouts in the Franklin Street Park.
Carr Clowney also discovered that Dr. J.H. Presnell, mayor of Knoxville’s black population and known as “the Bronze Mayor,” issued a proclamation setting aside Aug. 8 as Emancipation Day on July 22, 1939. The mayor urged those who hired blacks to allow them to be off from work on that day to attend the celebrations.
In 2005 a newly organized community group, Hall Oldfield Maryville Empowerment Inc. (H.O.M.E. Inc.) revived the celebration at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Alcoa, with a program including song, dance, readings, ethnic food and activities for the youth. That tradition has continued.
The entire festival is intended to strengthen bonds while celebrating the historic day. Clowney said, “It’s a community program,” and Carr Clowney added, “Come on out and be a part of it, show respect for the people working to preserve our history.”