Emancipation, from Eighth of August to Juneteenth

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Stories

A week from now, Juneteenth celebrations will be starting up in Knoxville, with festivities celebrating the emancipation of Black Americans during and after the Civil War. Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, named for June 19, 1865, when the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation was ordered by Union Major General Gordon Granger in Texas, more than two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

There could be a lot of different dates for Emancipation Day: September 22, when Abraham Lincoln announced the proclamation; January 1, for the day it went into effect; the myriad other days that emancipation occurred across confederate states, quite literally in the wake of the Union Army telling enslaved persons, “You’re free”; April 8 or December 16 for the passing/ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, finally, 78 years in arrears.

For Tennessee, emancipation came earlier than in many of the rebel states at the hands of military Gov. Andrew Johnson. Nashville was captured and under Union control by February 1862 as was much of middle and west Tennessee. Johnson, a Unionist but also an enslaver, had gotten a workaround for Tennessee to be excepted from the proclamation. He crafted his own on October 24, 1864, and on February 22, 1865, before the war was even over, it was added to the state’s constitution.

But there was something else Johnson did that caused another date to stick across the Volunteer State as Emancipation Day. Before his proclamation, before the change to the constitution, Johnson put his money where his mouth was and freed the people he kept in bondage, on August 8, 1863. Most of them were in Nashville with him by that time. Though East Tennessee was the anti-secession part of the state, it was the last of the three grand divisions to come back under federal control in late 1863.

One of Johnson’s formerly enslaved, Samuel Johnson, started the August 8 celebrations of freedom back in Greeneville, Tennessee. Samuel is considered the father of Eighth of August Celebrations that quickly spread to Newport and Knoxville. Though Juneteenth is now the official federal holiday, the Eighth of August has been celebrated in Knoxville for over 100 years.

Post the travesty of Plessy v. Ferguson, August 8 became the ONE day out of the year that Black Knoxvillians (and visitors from not just other counties, but states) could gather to enjoy the facilities at Chilhowee Park. There was music, picnics, baseball games, boxing matches and horse races. Celebrations were also held at other locations.

One of those, for several years, was Chestnut View Park in Park Ridge. The six-acre tract was privately owned by Charles and Ethel Stafford, Black residents of the area who purchased the land in 1907 and made improvements to it for use by anyone. Many Eighth of August celebrations were held there in addition to those going on at Chilhowee Park. No mentions of the park appear after the early 1930s. The park’s location was roughly where the O’ Reilly Auto Parts warehouse sits on Cherry Street near I-40 today.

Enjoy and learn from Juneteenth Celebrations next week and the Eighth of August Jubilee in two months.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for KnoxTNToday.com. It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: Knoxville Journal/Chronicle digital archives, Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Tennessee State Museum: The Emancipation Proclamation in Tennessee by Matthew Gailani, The History of Emancipation Day in Tennessee by Stephanie Davis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *