Black History 365: Black Kentuckians, Tennesseans celebrate emancipation with Eighth of August events

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For many Black Kentuckians and Tennesseans, the Eighth of August is a special day – a time for barbecue, reuniting with loved ones and marking their freedom from slavery. These annual celebrations are in the same spirit as Juneteenth, but their roots predate those of the now national holiday.

There’s an over 150-year history of Black communities – including those in Paducah, Hopkinsville and Russellville in Kentucky and Clarksville and Knoxville in Tennessee, among others – celebrating on the Eighth of August. Many take the late summer day to mark their freedom with homecomings, historical remembrances and usually a good party.

Marvin Nunn, the president of the W.C. Young Community Center in Paducah, is one of the lead organizers for Paducah’s Eighth of August celebration. He’s been celebrating the occasion for all of his life and he treasures his memories of the Eighth of August growing up.

“[Thousands of people] used to come to Paducah for the Eighth of August and the big celebrations and people from all over – St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago – had parties. It’d be an all day thing,” the 70-year-old west Kentucky native said. “People barbecued and had family reunions, the park would be full of people and we’d have a legendary Eighth of August dance, where everybody dresses up real nice. You’d go to the dance and you’d see old friends, middle school friends, elementary friends. It’s just a beautiful occasion.”

Nunn hasn’t tried to change things now that he’s one of the annual celebration’s planners. This year’s events – which concluded earlier Monday with a traditional emancipation breakfast – included a parade, a dance, a basketball clinic, a gospel concert, a fashion show and a block party, among other things.

Nunn’s family moved from Paducah to Detroit when he was a kid, but he always used to come home for the Eighth.

“Matter of fact, the only time I’ve missed an Eighth of August celebration, that’s when I was in the military and overseas,” Nunn said. “And I was depressed because I couldn’t make it to Paducah for the Eighth of August. I’ve always done it.”

Even now in towns across Kentucky and Tennessee, many Black families, schools and churches host reunions and homecomings on the Eighth of August.

Origin stories

All of these festivities are aimed at fostering community and commemorating when freedom first came to slaves in parts of the region.

According to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center – a Knoxville, Tennessee-based nonprofit that works to preserve and teach Black history – future U.S. president Andrew Johnson freed his own slaves in Tennessee on August 8, 1863.

Johnson, then military governor of the state, did this because the Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year didn’t include Tennessee, which was then under Union control. Kentucky wasn’t included because it was a neutral border state in the Civil War. All of the slaves in Tennessee would be freed by Johnson in October 1864 and slavery remained legal in Kentucky until federal law forced the state’s hand to abolish it in December 1865.

When the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – which ended slavery – went to the states to be ratified, Kentucky didn’t ratify it. The state waited over 100 years to symbolically ratify it in 1976.

William Isom is the director of Black in Appalachia, a nonprofit that documents African American contributions to the Mountain South. He says one of those slaves, Samuel Johnson, organized the first Eighth of August celebration on August 8, 1871 in Greenville, Tennessee.
“It was a parade with Andrew Johnson in attendance and some other elected officials and Samuel Johnson,” Isom said. “In several newspaper accounts in east Tennessee, he’s credited with being the one that spread the Eighth of August as Emancipation Day.”

Though this is the most historically supported origin of the tradition, there have been others connected to it over the years. A historical marker in downtown Paducah says the day was “chosen because it was when slaves in Santo Domingo (Haiti) earned their freedom.” Some say it’s when western Kentucky residents got news of the Emancipation Proclamation, though historians say neither narrative is supported by evidence.

How the tradition continues

Other Eighth of August celebrations started happening in communities across the region throughout the late 1800s. Historians like Isom and Alicestyne Turley – the director of the Freedom Stories Project, which focuses on African American and Appalachian history – think the tradition likely spread as Black Appalachians moved out across the region seeking a better life and fleeing racial persecution during the Reconstruction era.

“There was a whole hearted effort to run them out of the mountains. Many of them leave the mountains and come over here to western Kentucky on the river. People literally by community are leaving the mountains looking for work. Many of them come over and work on the river, work on the docks,” Turley said during a talk in Paducah as part of this year’s celebration. “I think if you look at the exodus or the expulsion of African Americans from Appalachia, you’ll be able to draw pretty much a straight line.”

Isom says at one point there were communities in 12 states celebrating the tradition. Another historian – Michael Morrow, the curator of the SEEK (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky) Museum in Russellville – agrees with Isom and Turley about the way the tradition spread. He also says there are historical records showing widespread celebrations in the state, though it’s faded in many places.

“I’ve done research on it and I can tell you 150 communities in Kentucky that used to have it that don’t have it now,” he said.

Though some places have stopped celebrating the Eighth of August, most everywhere has started celebrating Juneteenth since it was elevated to a federal holiday. But that hasn’t hurt the celebrations in the region; many communities that do celebrate the Eighth of August just mark both occasions now.

“All we’ve done different this year is celebrate Juneteenth, too,” Morrow added. “You’re not going to take away from the freedom [by celebrating both], we’re just gonna add to it. It’s just another day to celebrate: the day that the Lord saw fit to set millions of people free.”

West Kentucky native Ronda Smith grew up celebrating the Eighth of August. Though Juneteenth is now nationally recognized, she wasn’t really familiar with the Texan tradition turned federal holiday until pretty recently.

“I’m 64. I was 63 when I first celebrated Juneteenth, and I wouldn’t have done it then if my daughter wasn’t cooking fish. I wouldn’t have got up and went,” she said with a laugh.

Juneteenth and the Eighth of August aren’t the only widespread celebrations of Black freedom in America. Many Black Americans also mark January 1 as the day the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, although there are also regional celebrations on varying dates of historical significance in Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi and Virginia.

Though some say these regional celebrations have gotten smaller over the decades, many are still going strong and organizers hope they’ll be planning events like the Eighth of August for decades to come. No matter what the date, historian William Isom says celebrations of emancipation help people to recognize progress, even if there’s still a long way to go.

“People have been celebrating Emancipation through Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, through the Red Summer, seasons of racial atrocities, and even today with the spate of rampant police violence and murder against Black folks in America,” Isom said. “People continue to celebrate the hope of freedom, regardless of the current conditions, and I think that that’s really important. It’s like a reminder of where people came from, and how far we have come as a nation.”