August 8 isn’t just another hot Wednesday. It's Emancipation Day, a holiday that belongs to East Tennessee. Several different states and regions celebrate their own Emancipation Day, but for us, and only a few other scattered places in America, like parts of Kentucky and Missouri, it’s the 8th of August, or “8 of 8,” as it’s sometimes styled. It’ll be celebrated with a wide variety of events, coordinated by the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, on that Wednesday and also the following Saturday.
According to tradition, our Emancipation Day celebrates the day that Andrew Johnson, wartime governor of Tennessee and future president, freed his slaves.
Photo Credit: Brian Stansberry
This summer celebration started soon after the Civil War. By 1871, it was a holiday based mainly in Greeneville, Johnson’s home, organized by a former Johnson slave, and sometimes attended by the former president himself. Picnics and music and dancing were often part of the party. Within a few years, it was being celebrated in Knoxville, too, in a wide variety of ways, with big-name concerts and picnics--at least occasionally in the 1920s, all-black automobile races.
It became the one day that black children were welcome to use Chilhowee Park’s playground amusement-park area. That part of the park, which included a roller coaster and merry-go-round, was strictly whites-only the rest of the year.
Sometimes major performers would come to Knoxville on Aug. 8 to do shows at Chilhowee Park’s auditorium, in the Jacob Building and its predecessor. Louis Armstrong was here on Aug. 8 in 1937, and Lionel Hampton in 1953. Rock ’n’ roll pioneer Lloyd Price played an Emancipation Day show there in 1952.
Though never forgotten, the old August 8 holiday was often overlooked after desegregation, but it has enjoyed a bit of a revival in recent years, sometimes branded as the “8 of 8 Jubilee,” with a special “Red Carpet” documentary presentation at the Tennessee Theatre on the evening of the 8th, and on the following Saturday the 11th, a solemn observance at the Freedmen’s Mission Historic Cemetery, beside the old Knoxville College campus, where some of Johnson’s freed slaves are actually buried—followed by an all-day party of lectures and live music at Chilhowee Park, a traditional center for Emancipation Day ceremonies for close to a century now.
Come celebrate, whatever color you are. The end of slavery emancipated both blacks and whites from a centuries-old moral burden.