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.
“Why is it important?” asked historian Nancy Dawson. “Because although things changed, there’s still so much work that people have to do in term of race relations, in terms of diversity, in terms of understanding each other.
“And that’s on all sides of the fence. The enslavement is a part of American history. It’s not black history. It’s American history. Not a very fun part of American history. It doesn’t make us feel all warm and comfortable.”
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, is a widely celebrated Emancipation celebration, as is Jan. 1. So why is there an 8th of August celebration?
The origins 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 say that news of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, didn’t arrive in faraway communities until Aug. 8.
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.
1. Hopkinsville: The famed 8th of August celebrations in Christian County can be traced to nearby Crofton in the beginning of the 20th century. The spirit of the festival is kept alive today by the Minority Economic Development Initiative, which sponsors a historic African-American business tour. “A lot of those locations and sites that we’re visiting are from post-slaves that were part of Reconstruction era after the Civil War,” said Henry Snorton III.
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.
Organizer Paulette Smith said the celebration, with its music, basketball and softball tournament, and church services, helps knit the community together. “You should know who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going, and this tells all of that,” she said.
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, said that in the early 1900s, newspapers reported crowds of more than 10,000 coming in by rail and by steamboat. Paducah features a parade for the 8th of August. James Otis Trice Jr., the grand marshal in 2013, said it was an honor. “This is my 69th trip down to Paducah on the holiday. I don’t miss it,” he said.
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. Baseball games were the key component of the celebration, as Morton remembered. “My dad was a ballplayer, and he always come to play ball on the Eighth of August.”
Historians say the 8th of August was a celebration of freedom especially during the days of segregation. “I talked to a lot of elders of the community and they told me how important it was to be in a space where you’re free, ” said Dawson. “And by that I mean free from any kind of racial tension, you know.”
Russellville community historian Michael A. Morrow said the 8th of August is a teaching opportunity and a celebration. “We come to celebrate the freedom and sacrifice of so many African Americans and so many other people to end slavery, and to bring people together, to show everybody that the important thing is that we get along as people,” he said.