On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves held in locations in conflict with the United States were henceforth free. Black communities in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina have observed Emancipation Day on that day ever since. Not so elsewhere in Appalachia.
When Union soldiers took control of an area, they would, amongst other things, read the proclamation and enforce it. Because of this, various states, territories, and municipalities celebrate emancipation on the day when the law was enforced in their region.
Tennessee and Kentucky, for example, have long informally recognized August 8 as the day. As early as 1875, the African American community in the vicinity of Greene County, TN had begun to hold annual celebrations on August 8th, known as the “Eighth of August Celebration” according to local accounts in The Greeneville American. Last April Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen went a step further and signed House Bill No. 207 into law, officially recognizing August 8 as “Emancipation Day” in that state.
“… to honor and recognize the celebration of the action of Andrew Johnson, seventeenth president of the United States and then military governor of Tennessee, in freeing his personal slaves on August 8, 1863, and the significance of emancipation in the history of Tennessee.”
The Gallia County (Ohio) Emancipation Day Celebration, held September 22, claims itself to be the longest continuous running celebration of the kind. An Ohio Department of Development brochure provides more details: “Students were dismissed from school and people attended dressed in their very best clothes. It was conducted in a religious atmosphere. However, such fun activities as baseball, sack racing, hog calling and greasy pole climbing were also introduced to stimulate the interest and maintain the enthusiasm. Bands, famous orators, politicians, parades, dances and queen contests were also included in the celebration.”
West Virginia also recognized September 22. “At the fair grounds, ex-United States Senator B. K. Bruce, of Mississippi, will speak in the afternoon at two o’clock,” announced the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in 1891. “Then will follow the singing by the states, forty-four girls and forty-four boys, Our Nation’s day, reading of the Proclamation by Queen of the Day, singing by William Turner’s quartette, thence to the general amusements of the day.”
In late nineteenth and early twentieth century Kentucky, Emancipation Day fairs (as in Tennessee, August 8th) were popular among the state’s black citizens. Cash prizes were awarded winners in categories from livestock and racing to music and floral display.