“We Held Out Our Eyes Delirious With Grace:” The Meanings and Significance of August 8th


By george white, jr.


Robert Booker, a Knoxville native and independent scholar, recalled that August 8th “was like the 4th of July for Blacks” in the area.  Chilhowee Park, one of the major recreational centers in the city, was racially segregated and designated “for Whites only.” However, Booker stated that “the 8 th of August was the only day that Blacks could use Chilhowee Park.” According to Booker, on the evening of August 7th, families would place watermelons on ice and the next day cut them open as pigs slowly roasted on grills.  “It was a day of celebrating emancipation,” he remembered.

Shirley Tyler of Paducah, Kentucky said that during their August 8th celebrations, they had family reunions, picnics, and games for children.  Just last year, Paducah’s Auguts 8 th festivities featured a parade and banquet.  Mrs. Tyler said that “the 8th of August was the day when the news reached the people and the slaves were told they were freed.”

Margie Staggs grew up near Caruthersville, Missouri and her earliest remembrance of August 8th celebrations comes from 1915, when she was 5 years old.  Black folks there had church programs and picnics and no one went to work.  “It was a Black holiday,” she recalled. 1

These stories and others document the significance of a forgotten holiday.  Until recently, no scholar believed that there was any documentary evidence to support the claim of former slaves and their descendants regarding the origins and historical significance of August 8 th.  Nevertheless, the “legend” has persisted in local memory and animated an important cultural phenomenon for more than a century.  August 8th festivities featured marching bands, baseball games, political gatherings, or even beauty pageants.  Black families either staged their own events or traveled to neighboring cities to participate in large-scale activities.  In my hometown, August 8 th also represented the only time that Black people could enter what was then the major urban amusement park in the city.  It was, in the words of one elder, the Black man’s “Fourth of July.” August 8th celebrations throughout the Jim Crow era were similar to contemporary “Juneteenth” celebrations held in other parts of the former Confederacy.  The former slaves and their immediate descendants carved their desires and dreams into the sands of time.  The question for us is “what are we prepared to do with this legacy?”

This paper will examine the historical record surrounding August 8th , including recently discovered records from local archives.  In addition, it will discuss the migration of this celebration beyond its East Tennessee roots into Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri, among other places.  Finally, it will analyze the meaning of these public events and memorials for Black folk and link that analysis to the reinvigoration of the tradition in East Tennessee.  As a result, the paper also will address the issues of identity, community empowerment, and public memory through the celebration of “Emancipation Day.”

August 8th Celebrations – The Historical Record

The oldest documentary evidence describing Tennessee’s “Emancipation Day” is in the form of a newspaper article from August 9, 1871.  In the article, the reporter describes the setting and identifies the participants: 

The Colored People of Greneville (sic) had a celebration at that place yesterday.  A procession was formed in the following order: 1st.  Officer of the day, Sam Johnson, late a slave of President Johnson; 2d. Greeneville Brass Band, in four horse wagon, horses suitably bedecked with flags, &c.; 3d. Citizens in wagons, buggies, carriages, on horseback and on foot. . .Afterwards the colored Sabbath School of the city, children also formed in the procession, carrying the American flag in front.  They all marched out from town some distance when they were addressed by ex-President Johnson, Col. Bob Crawford and others.  President Johnson went out about 11 o’clock in a two horse buggy, in company with several other gentleman (sic).  The procession commenced moving at 9 o’clock down Irish Street to Maine, and on to Tusculum College near which the speaking and picnic exercises were held. 2

According to stories passed through generations of Black families, August 8, 1863 was the date that soon-to-be President Andrew Johnson freed his slaves in Greeneville, Tennessee.  Because East Tennessee was overwhelmingly Unionist, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to local slaveowners and Johnson’s decision may have been based on anxiety caused by his moral and political dilemma.  For Johnson’s slaves, however, his motivations were secondary and Black folks in this area celebrated August 8 th as “Emancipation Day.”

Of course, American legal and other traditions have regarded Black people as incredible and unreliable witnesses.  Anything that we say automatically is greeted with skepticism.  Fortunately, Black people have maintained the belief in the origin and reality of Emancipation Day even as the celebrations slowed and as professional academics claimed that even the presidential papers of Andrew Johnson supported no such holiday.  Thus, the newspaper article is important as scholarly corroboration that Emancipation Day actually existed and that it was tied to President Johnson and his slaves.  Additional corroboration of this type also exists.

East Tennessee newspapers contained mention of August 8th celebrations in 1875 and throughout the 1880s.3 For example, the Greeneville Herald reported on the August 8 th festivities in 1882, noting that “[n]otwithstanding the very unfavorable weather, the celebration by our colored citizens at Liberty, four miles east of Greeneville, on last Tuesday was quite a success.” 4 Local newspaper articles also bear witness to the wider popularity of the celebration.  “A special excursion train carrying several hundred people arrived in Knoxville Thursday afternoon at four o’clock from Decatur, Ala.  The special consisted of ten coaches. . .Nearly two hundred negroes met the visitors at the Southern [Railway] passenger station. . .The excursion train was run from the Alabama city for the celebration planned by local negroes.” 5 During the 1920s reports like the following occurred repeatedly:

The fifty-fourth anniversary of emancipation of the negroes in America will be observed in Knoxville on Monday. . .At Chestnut View park the colored Knights of Pythias will give a barbecue and several extemporaneous speeches will be made by . . . prominent men.  A fine dinner will be prepared and all plans are for the proper observance of the anniversary which all negroes always celebrate.  At Booker Washington park Monday afternoon a baseball game will be played between colored teams. 6

The local papers even picked up an Associated Press story about the Emancipation Day celebration in Memphis.

More than a score of former slaves were among the 1,000 Negroes tonight who participated in an “Emancipation jubilee” mass meeting at Booker T. Washington High School The meeting climaxed the Emancipation rally celebrating the seventy-second anniversary of the freedom of the Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas Negroes from slavery. 7

The African American Task Force and the Reclamation Project

Community activists involved in the Community Economic Development Network of East Tennessee, otherwise known as “CEDNet,” have always known about August 8th.  Individually, they fondly recalled that it had always been celebrated throughout East Tennessee as “Emancipation Day.” However, they only began to unearth the true significance of August 8 th once they organized themselves as the African American Task Force of CEDNet.

In 2003, the members of the African American Task Force set out to create a historical foundation for the holiday.  They gained research assistance from staff members of Legal Aid East Tennessee, most notably Bill Murrah.  They also received invaluable help from interns at Legal Aid who were students at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, members of the National Park Service at the Andrew Johnson home site, and staff at Tusculum College.  One of the first of many surprises came when they spoke with Mrs. Almetor King.  Although Mrs. King currently resides in Knoxville, she grew up in Harlan, Kentucky and told of August 8 th celebrations north of the Tennessee border: “there were beauty contests, softball games, spelling bees, a watermelon eating contest,” she recalled.  Mrs. King also remembered that all the Black workers from the coal camps did not go to work on that day and listened to music deep into the night. 8

More research by members of the African American Task Force and their cohort revealed celebrations in Black communities in Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.  They also uncovered Margie Staggs’ testimony of August 8 th celebrations in Caruthersville and Hayti, two small towns in southeastern Missouri.  In addition, the researchers found a novel written by Chicago-based author Dawn Turner Trice entitled An Eighth of August , a book that describes August 8th as a “Midwestern” celebration.9 Just as exciting was a discovery by the staff of the National Park Service of a 1939 Tennessee state government calendar that lists August 8 th as “Emancipation Day” statewide.10

The African American Task Force was diligent in recovering old newspaper articles and any documentary evidence regarding Andrew Johnson and his slaves.  This material is now collected at the CEDNet offices, which are a part of the local Legal Aid society in Knoxville.  However, their greatest work was in recovering stories from witnesses across the state and southeast.  For example, Mary Williams of Jonesborough, Tennessee told an interviewer that “Woodland Lake would be turned over to Blacks for the 8 th of August and there would be a big swimming party.” Mary also stated that the event would be like a large party, with picnics, swimming, all varieties of foods and tin tubs filled with sodas.  She indicated that they celebrated the 8 th of August because “that was the day the Blacks were freed in this area.” Her earliest recollection of an August 8th celebration was from 1941 and the last one she can remember in her home town was in 1969. 11 Jonesborough is regarded as the state’s oldest town and is roughly 30 miles northeast of Greeneville.

Dr. Mary Whaley, a professor at Knoxville College and a native of Clarksville, Tennessee, recalled that August 8th was celebrated as Emancipation Day throughout her entire life.  The picnics and baseball games were organized on various parcels of land or on streets where neighbors could congregate throughout Montgomery County because the county did not have a park for Blacks.  The celebrations continue to this day as a church program. 12

Conclusion – August 8th as More Than A Historical Artifact

At best, I am a simple scribe bearing witness to the thankless efforts of the members of the African American Task Force.  I am proud to have been witness to their reclamation project, especially because it is an important piece of local and regional history.  The history of Emancipation Day, in and of itself, is tremendously important as a window into American life.  To that end, activists Jacqueline Clay and Shedenna A. Dockery delivered a presentation in June 2006 in New York as part of a national conference on historical preservation that was televised by C-SPAN.  However, I have recently exceeded my position and sought to encourage the Task Force to think of August 8 th as more than just a historical artifact.  I did so, in large part, because we need the spirit of August 8th as much as the historical artifact of August 8th needs us.

In its original conception, August 8th was a robust rejection of America’s slave order, of the Confederacy.  August 8th celebrations matured and transformed within the crucible of Jim Crow as a modest rebuke of White Supremacy.  Sadly, we live in a time I in which the Confederate flag has been reborn as a symbol of patriotism.  We live in a time when the first presidential administration of the 21st Century is a treasonous government, not unlike the Confederate States of America, willing to wage a racist, immoral, illegal war.  We live in a time when the leader of this rogue regime, George W. Bush, is a living, breathing, walking symbol of White masculine privilege and his in-bred, moronic oblivousness passes for swagger and decisiveness.  We live in a time when our country has slid toward fascism like a fast-moving child with both feet on pieces of shimmering red, blue, and white cloth.

On one level, August 8th demonstrates the complex connection between identity, memory, and citizenship.  It seems to me that the August 8th celebrations represented a way for Black folks to claim their American-ness, their citizenship in a country they helped build with little reward and acknowledgment.  However, August 8 th also was a way to declare and celebrate a distinct Black identity.  In so doing, the people who celebrated August 8th as “Black folk’s Independence Day” were challenging the master narrative of American heritage and saying to the world that there was a whole ‘nother way of understanding America.  This process, which seems like a type of “individuation,” was a demonstration of the uniqueness of Black people, as individuals and as a group.  Such respect for the humanity of Black folk was constantly shorn from our bodies during slavery and throughout Nadir.  Part of the power of older forms of White Supremacy was its ability to render Black folks as one seemless whole devoid of any historic or divine spark.  Given Joseph Biden’s recent comments regarding fellow Democratic Presidential hopeful Barak Obama, one is convinced that this subtle manifestation of White Privilege is still going strong.

On a second level, August 8th was about community survival and empowerment.  The very fact of gathering together in one park, or traveling hours to another city, staying home from work, or just spending your time as you saw fit was a form of resistance to the crushing effects of Jim Crow segregation.  When Black workers who desperately needed their wages decided to stay home from work, they were not simply loafing or loitering.  This act was effectively a one-day boycott that signaled their strength, their willingness to define their lives, their claim on a right to leisure.  Moreover, through celebrating the history of one point of liberation, they could imagine and work for a second, anticipated phase of freedom.

On a third level, August 8th was about economic development.  Yes, people often played games and rode amusement rides, but the historical record also indicates that many of these gatherings featured speakers.  I have no doubt that many of them encouraged Black youth to go to school and become tradesmen or professionals; that the speeches encouraged workers to save their money and invest in Black owned businesses or buy Black products.  I also think that we can make an educated guess that some of these speeches were about political topics and provided a means for Black people to engage a process that seemed hell-bent on their exclusion.

I mention all of these things because it occurs to me that August 8th is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.  Our nation is now run by a proto-fascist regime and only now is the “loyal opposition” beginning to develop a spine.  Even as people revel in the new power that Democrats have in Congress, the reality is that they never defended Black folks after the crimes that marred the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.  The Democrats never spoke the obvious truth about the imperial war in Iraq when it needed to be said in 2002 and 2003.  Even now, as poor and working-class Black folk are being arrested for entering their homes in public housing projects in New Orleans, no one is saying a peep!

We can use August 8th not simply as an historic artifact but as a living organic, dynamic means of organizing communities around the very issues of social justice that are important to us now.  August 8 th celebrations can become the place to discuss voting strategies or develop alternative political parties.  August 8th celebrations could be the place to discuss the prison-industrial complex in all of its oppressive forms.  August 8 th celebrations can become the place to talk about quality education, about economic empowerment, and about sustainable living.  August 8th is so culturally and historically rich that it can be whatever we need and want it to become.  Through August 8 th, we can carve our desires and dreams into the sands of time and create a roadmap to the next stage of freedom!

Posted by SPN on 02/21 at 05:40 PM in Justice / Injustice

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