For many Black Kentuckians and Tennesseans, August 8 is a day to mark freedom
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
For many Black people in Kentucky and Tennessee, the 8 of August is a special day in the same spirit as Juneteenth. And as Derek Operle of member station WKMS reports, the regional emancipation celebration was started by the freed slave of a U.S. president.
DEREK OPERLE, BYLINE: Black communities in Kentucky and Tennessee have been turning out on the 8 of August for over 150 years, marking their freedom from slavery with homecomings, historical remembrances and usually a good party.
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OPERLE: West Kentucky native Rhonda Smith grew up celebrating on August 8. And though Juneteenth is now nationally recognized, she wasn't familiar with the Texas tradition turned federal holiday until pretty recently.
RHONDA SMITH: 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 (laughter). I wouldn't have got up and went.
OPERLE: Historians say August 8, 1863, was the day future U.S. President Andrew Johnson freed his own slaves in Tennessee. 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. And Kentucky wasn't included because it was a neutral border state in the Civil War. One of those slaves, Samuel Johnson, organized the first 8 of August event in Greenville eight years later. Here's William Isom, the director of Black In Appalachia, a nonprofit that documents African American contributions to the Mountain South.
WILLIAM ISOM: There was a parade with Andrew Johnson in attendance and some other elected officials and Samuel Johnson. In several newspaper accounts in East Tennessee, he's credited with being the one that spread the 8 of August as Emancipation Day.
OPERLE: 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.
ALICESTYNE TURLEY: 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.
OPERLE: These celebrations foster a sense of community among Black residents in places like Paducah and Russellville in Kentucky and Knoxville in Tennessee. Marvin Nunn is one of the lead organizers for Paducah's 8 of August festivities, which this year include a parade, a dance 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 8.
MARVIN NUNN: Matter of fact, the only time I've missed an 8 of August celebration was when I was in the military and overseas. And I was depressed because I couldn't make it to Paducah for the 8 of August. I've always done it.
OPERLE: Even now in towns across Kentucky and Tennessee, many Black families, schools and churches are hosting reunions and homecomings. Juneteenth and the 8 of August aren't the only widespread events commemorating Black freedom in America. Many Black Americans also mark January 1, the day President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863. No matter what the date, historian William Isom says these celebrations have survived through some of Black America's most trying times.
ISOM: People have been celebrating through reconstruction, through Jim Crow, seasons of racial atrocities and even today, in the state of, like, you know, rampant police violence and murder against Black folks in America.
OPERLE: Isom says these regional observances help people to recognize progress, even if there's still a long way to go. For NPR News, I'm Derek Operle in Paducah, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.