If asked, when would you say “freedom” was granted to those whose ancestors were brought to the colonies as enslaved people? Would you respond January 1, 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect? Ah, but those states that had seceded from the Union did not recognize the Emancipation Proclamation and were engaged in ongoing and brutal battle to have their own government apart from the United States.
We just celebrated “Juneteenth” – June 19, 1865, when, at last, the news of Confederate surrender and emancipation reached Texas. The announcement was accompanied by many Union troops, among them units of black soldiers wearing Union uniforms. What about emancipation in border states – border states like Tennessee?
During the early days of the Civil War, there were a number of states located between the Union and the newly declared Confederacy. Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri remained border states throughout the Civil War. Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virgina were originally considered border states and the great divisions of sentiment in those states, as well as the bloody battles fought in those states created hostilities that remain among their peoples to this day.
However, pro-Union eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee considered themselves part of the Union…and themselves, a border people. So, for some time, they carried an understanding that the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to them. In fact, in 1862, President Lincoln appointed then Tennessee Senator, Andrew Johnson of Greeneville, Tennessee, as the Military Governor of Tennessee.
On August 8, 1863, Johnson freed the slaves he held in Tennessee and in 1871, Emancipation Day in Tennessee was celebrated for the first time. To this day, a number of East Tennessee counties celebrate August 8th as Emancipation Day. You can read about our unique Emancipation Day at the Tennessee Historical Association website
In 2007, the Tennessee General Assembly designated August 8 or “Emancipation Day” as a day of special observance. August 8 has been celebrated in Tennessee as “Emancipation Day” or “8 of 8” since 1871. That very first celebration was organized in Greenville, Tennessee by Sam Johnson. Sam Johnson was free that day in 1871, but it had not always been so. Former President of the United States, Andrew Johnson was the guest speaker. At one time, Sam belonged to Andrew Johnson. Sam Johnson was forty-eight years old in 1871. He had lived as a free man for only eight years. Sam was the first enslaved person that Andrew Johnson purchased. On November 29, 1842, the day he was purchased, Sam was 13 years old. Several weeks later, on January 3, 1843, Andrew Johnson purchased Sam’s half-sister, Dolly, who was 19 years old at the time.
Executive Director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center hosts this reflection on Emancipation Day – 8th of August. The video is about 30 minutes. It features people whose families passed along the stories of emancipation as it happened in Tennessee.