On June 19, thousands gathered in Knoxville’s Caswell Park to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday marking the date in 1865 that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been ordered freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation 2½ years earlier.
The holiday this year came at a time of heightened focus on issues of systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that resulted. While the celebration in Knoxville was massive despite the coronavirus pandemic, it also signaled a change from years past.
Historically, the 8th of August, not Juneteenth, has been celebrated as Emancipation Day in East Tennessee. Aug. 8, 1863, was the day during the Civil War that Andrew Johnson, then the military governor of Tennessee, freed his slaves at his family’s farm in Greeneville, telling them they were free to go or could stay to work for pay.
Black people in East Tennessee began celebrating the 8th of August as early as 1871, six years after the Civil War ended and three after Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s assassination, opted not to run for re-election. Robert Booker, Knox News columnist and local civil rights leader, wrote in an opinion piece this week that the Knoxville Chronicle of Aug. 9, 1871, described the festivities the day before.
“The colored people of Greeneville had a celebration at that place yesterday,” the newspaper read. “They were addressed by ex-president Johnson. He went out about 11 o’clock in a two-horse buggy in company with several other gentlemen. The procession commenced moving to Tusculum College near which the speaking and public exercises were held.”
In the following years, 8th of August celebrations — complete with bands, picnics and speeches — spread across Tennessee and into such states as Kentucky and Missouri, Aaron Astor, an associate history professor at Maryville College, wrote in a 2013 piece for The New York Times. But the biggest gathering for years remained the one in Greeneville, where Johnson would address a crowd that included Black people who had traveled there from Knoxville by train.
Knoxville eventually began to hold its own 8th of August celebrations. During the era of racial segregation in public spaces, the holiday marked the one day out of the year that the city allowed Black people access to Chilhowee Park.
In his piece, Astor wrote that Aug. 8 is, in some ways, a complicated day to celebrate. Johnson freed his slaves that day, but he only did so after successfully persuading Lincoln to exclude Tennessee from the Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation that ordered slaves be freed in Confederate states.
Johnson was militantly pro-Union, and he initially wanted Tennessee to be exempt from the proclamation because he believed emancipation would alienate the slaveholding elites he wanted on his side. When excluding Tennessee from the measure didn’t have the effect he desired, Johnson changed his stance on slavery and began arguing in favor of emancipation as a way to end the war and preserve the Union.
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Johnson became instrumental in ending slavery, but he often made clear his primary concern was for white people, not slaves themselves. His writings showed he believed Black people should be technically free but still relegated to the underclass in society, and as president he vetoed legislation to ensure rights for newly freed slaves. Congress repeatedly overrode Johnson’s vetoes, and he grew deeply unpopular before he was impeached, but not removed from office, in 1868.
“Johnson certainly did not initiate emancipation — in Tennessee or elsewhere,” Astor concluded in The New York Times. “His personal racism and Jacksonian defense of the states’ right to manage race relations helped undermine the Reconstruction promise of egalitarianism. But he played a critical role in engineering the final and permanent destruction of slavery across the land. His first move in that direction, at his Greeneville homestead on Aug. 8, 1863, may have been worthy of widespread commemoration and celebration after all.”
Booker, the columnist who led sit-in demonstrations against segregation in the 1960s, wrote in his op-ed that he grew up celebrating the 8th of August and has participated in its revival in recent years. But because of the massive turnout for the Juneteenth rally this year, he wrote, “it looks as if we may have a new Emancipation Day.”
Renee Kessler, president of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, said there’s room for more than one Emancipation Day celebration. The center, which aims to capture Black history in Knoxville, held its 6th Annual 8 of 8 Jubilee Libation Ceremony on Saturday morning and plans to hold an encore presentation Sunday night at 8 p.m. The center’s 8th of August events are being live-streamed on community television this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Kessler said Juneteenth should be a national holiday celebrated by all, while the 8th of August should be a state holiday in Tennessee due to its local importance. (A bill that would make the 8th of August a state holiday passed the state House but stalled in the Senate this year.)
“It’s not one or the other,” Kessler said, adding that both days have historical significance.
Constance Every agrees. A local activist with the group Black Coffee Justice, Every helped to organize this year’s Juneteenth rally and now is organizing an outdoors 8th of August gathering at Knoxville’s Danny Mayfield Park on Saturday evening.
The event, called “Libation for Liberation,” will celebrate the importance of Black art to the Civil Rights movement through music, dance, spoken word and more, Every said. Food and Black Lives Matter shirts will be sold at the event, which is slated to run from 7-9 p.m.
Every said that, to her, the holiday has nothing to do with Andrew Johnson or his racist beliefs.
“It is that we have a dual liberation,” she said. “We have August 8, and we have June 19.”