Few of the thousands of fugitive slaves who lived in Hampton’s vast Civil War refugee camps were taken by surprise when — on Jan. 1, 1863 — they received word that President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
A hundred days earlier, the milestone executive order freeing slaves across the South had been described in a preliminary announcement that circulated widely both behind Confederate lines and in Union-occupied areas such as Hampton Roads.
That knowledge didn’t make the night before any less suspenseful, however, as the blacks who had fled to the Federal stronghold at Fort Monroe gathered to pray for deliverance from bondage in a New Year’s Eve observance that is still remembered by many African-American churches today.
Not until these so-called “contraband” slaves mustered to hear the proclamation read near a live oak on the east side of the Hampton River — where their sprawling “Slabtown” settlement crowded shoulder to shoulder with a massive Union army encampment and hospital — did they hear the words that transformed the war between the states into a struggle for freedom.
“They were quite aware of the changes that were being debated when the preliminary announcement came out in September — and they were all prepared to celebrate it if it did,” Norfolk State University historian Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander says.
“But they were holding their breath.”
Known thereafter as the Emancipation Oak, the great 100-foot-wide tree still stands today on the grounds of Hampton University, the historically black college that sprang up from the contraband camps and schools after the Civil War.
Listed by the National Geographic Society among the “10 Great Trees of the World,” it was much younger and smaller when the reading took place in 1863.
But it was already recognized as a symbol.
Lewis Lockwood of the American Missionary Association noted that Mary Peake, the first black hired by the group to teach the fugitive slaves and their children how to read and write, had gathered with her students there long before the war when such instruction was illegal.
It became even more important after Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s landmark “contraband of war” decision at Fort Monroe in May 1861, when he refused to return three escaped slaves to their Hampton owner because their labor had been used to help build Confederate defenses.
Butler’s offer of refuge did not free the slaves. But it quickly prompted thousands of others from around the region to leave their masters and seek haven in what quickly became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.”
The Emancipation Proclamation left these residents of Slabtown in limbo, too, specifically limiting the president’s order to slaves living in Confederate-controlled lands.
But it still constituted a giant step forward in a crucial shift of Union policy and purpose that had started with Butler’s ad hoc military order.
“They could see that freedom was in the wind. They knew it was in sight,” Hampton History Museum J. Michael Cobb says.
“And when they heard the words of the proclamation, they knew it was going to happen if the Union won.”
Still, the “grand celebration” organized by the zealous abolitionist teachers and missionaries of the AMA met with something less than jubilation from the contrabands.
As historian and former Fort Monroe resident Robert F. Engs writes in his pioneering 1979 study, “Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia 1861-1890,” these long-abused “blacks were of less certain faith.
“They participated in the celebration, but with reserve.”
Across Hampton Roads, however, the black population in Union-occupied Norfolk celebrated with one of the nation’s largest parades staged in recognition of emancipation.
Led by a fife-and-drum band, some 4,000 African-Americans joined to march in triumph through the streets of the city, cheering the “downfall of African slavery” and waving American flags.
As Newby-Alexander notes in her book “An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads,” the celebration concluded with the burning and burial of a Jefferson Davis effigy in an outlying cemetery near the city fairgrounds.
“Considerable excitement was created in Norfolk, today, by a negro celebration,” a New York Times correspondent reported from “Fortress Monroe.”
“It was understood that they were celebrating the birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Similar mass expressions of joy were reported by the Times among contraband slaves living in Union-occupied areas of South Carolina.
In its Jan. 7, 1863 edition, the New York Herald described one such celebration in a page 5 story headlined “News from South Carolina: Negro Jubilee at Hilton Head.”
Such accounts cast doubt on the oft-repeated tradition that the first reading of the proclamation in the South took place under the boughs of the Hampton oak.
But there’s no question that — soon afterward — the tree took on widely recognized importance as a symbol of African-America freedom.
Many graduates of what was founded in 1868 as Hampton Institute took seedlings from the oak and planted them when they returned home, says historian William B. Wiggins, former chair of the university’s history department.
Often they grew up to shade new black schools and mark their historic links to Peake and her pioneering contraband students.
“The university had a seedling cultivated and gave it to President Obama on one of his visits,” Wiggins says.
“It’s now growing in the garden at the White House.”
“The Emancipation Proclamation- Its Immediate Legacy and Impact,” a panel discussion
Where: Hampton History Museum, 120 Old Hampton Lane, Hampton
When: 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 7
Info: 757-727-1610Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun