From west to east, McCracken, Christian, Todd, Logan and Allen counties in Kentucky, and Montgomery County in Tennessee
Producer: Brandon Wickey
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The 8th of August
American independence is celebrated on the 4th of July, but many African-American communities in Western Kentucky also commemorate another day of freedom. The 8th of August is both an Emancipation celebration and a homecoming, and it's been a tradition since the 1860s.
The origins of the 8th of August celebration are lost to time. Most newspapers didn't cover African-American events in much detail, and oral histories vary from town to town. Some say the holiday began in Tennessee when Andrew Johnson, military governor of Union-controlled Tennessee and future president, freed his slaves on Aug. 8, 1863. Others claim that news of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived in faraway communities on Aug. 8. In Paducah, the African American 8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery is credited with bringing back the news of Emancipation on that date.
The 8th of August quickly became a homecoming event in many Western Kentucky counties, whose populations were roughly 40 percent African-American in the years after the Civil War. Thousands would flood trains and steamboats to return home to celebrate the 8th with family who never left the area.
The 8th of August is still celebrated today in towns where the older generation works to instill the tradition in the younger generation. In this edition of Kentucky Life, we learn about this history from Nancy Dawson of Russellville, historian and artistic director of Music is Spirit; Russellville community historian Michael Morrow; Paducah community historian Corine Harber; retired Command Sgt. Maj. Lewis Hatcher of Clarksville, Tennessee; and educator Helen Anderson Long, also of Clarksville.
1. Hopkinsville: Phillip Payne, who was involved with the famed 8th of August celebrations in nearby Crofton, traces their history in Christian County back to the beginning of the 20th century. The spirit of the festival is kept alive today by the Minority Economic Development Initiative and its historic African-American business tour. The tour features 20 businesses and schools, some started by emancipated slaves. Dave Shuffett climbs aboard a haywagon for a tour, with MEDI executive director Henry Snorton and Christian County historians William Turner and Matt Snorton serving as our guides.
2. Russellville: This Logan County town hosts what has become the largest of the celebrations in the state, partly because of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Museum, which draws tourists and returning family alike. Historian Michael Morrow details Russellville's rich and troubled history for African Americans, from slavery and the Civil War to segregation, mob lynchings, and the civil rights movement. The 8th of August celebration here is relatively recent, having started about 40 years ago, and organizer Paulette Smith explains how the celebration, with its music, church services, and basketball and softball tournaments, helps knit the community together.
3. Paducah: Paducah can trace its 8th of August history back to at least 1886. Betty Dobson, historian and manager of the historic Hotel Metropolitan, tells us about the holiday's history in McCracken County. In the early 1900s, newspapers reported crowds of more than 10,000 coming in by rail and by steamboat. Stores that under segregation would not allow African-Americans to try on clothes relaxed the restrictions for the day. Today, Paducah is the only Kentucky community that still features a parade for the 8th of August. We meet 2013 parade grand marshal James Trice, who moved away from the area when he was 18 but has come back for 69 consecutive years since to celebrate the 8th of August.
4. Allensville: This Todd County community claims to have been celebrating the 8th of August the longest—since 1868. In 2013, Clarence Morton Sr. celebrated his 100th birthday on Aug. 8, and Dave Shuffett was there to celebrate with him. His son, Clarence Morton Jr., details Allensville's rich history.
5. Stories From Da Dirt: Performers with Music is Spirit create musical performances about the historical struggles of African-American women born into slavery. After performances, the group leads a discussion with the audience on race and diversity. We watch a performance of "Stories From Da Dirt" held at the historic Bibb House in Russellville. This home has a place in history for the actions taken by its owner, Richard Bibb. Bibb freed 29 of his slaves in 1829, long before the Civil War, paying for them to settle in the African nation of Liberia. Upon his death in 1839, he willed that the remaining slaves also be freed.
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