TRAPPE, Md. — People have always told Robert Chase that he looks just like the black and white portrait of Nathaniel Hopkins, known as “Uncle Nace.”
And Chase, 79, sees a resemblance, especially when he puts on Hopkins’ black top hat and carries his gold-handled sword to lead a parade down Trappe’s Main Street, as his ancestor did for so many years.
While many Americans are just learning about Juneteenth, an Emancipation Day celebration that originated in Texas and became a federal holiday last year, in this small Eastern Shore town, Chase and generations of his family and neighbors have been celebrating the end of slavery in Maryland since 1867. That was the year Hopkins first led the parade. Today, his descendants honor their relative, who founded the celebration, by calling it “Nace’s Day.”
“I get excited every year when it comes up,” said Nicole Chase-Powell, Chase’s daughter, who lives in Trappe and for 10 years chaired the committee that typically hosts the event in fall.
While the parade has been on hold during the pandemic, she and family and friends have held services and bake sales to mark the occasion. They’re hoping to get the parade restarted by next year.
Food is a big part of Nace’s Day, with Eastern Shore specialties like oysters, crab cakes and barbecue all on the menu. “Oh, my goodness,” says Jacqueline Gibbs, who is Hopkins’ descendant and Chase’s niece. She’s 80 now, but when she was a teenager, there was a dance, too.
With Juneteenth now a national holiday, Michael W. Twitty, a James Beard award-winning food writer who is from Maryland, sees both “an opportunity to make up new traditions based on where you are and draw on traditions from Emancipation Days across the country.”
He acknowledges: “Most people are starting at square one with this holiday.”
Slavery ended at different times for people depending on region, resulting in a diversity of celebrations across the U.S., says Twitty. While Texans who observe Juneteenth typically embrace the holiday with watermelon, which is in season there this month, “for most African Americans, Emancipation Day is celebrated in spring and fall,” said Twitty, whose newest book, Kosher Soul, out in August, explores the intersection of his Jewish faith and African American identity.
Slavery remained legal in Maryland even after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to Confederate states. That didn’t change until Nov. 1, 1864, when a new state constitution abolishing slavery went into effect.
Three years later, Hopkins began his parade, one of the first such celebrations in the U.S.
To his relatives and others in Trappe, Hopkins is just as significant a figure as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, fellow former slaves on the Eastern Shore who escaped from bondage and became leaders in their communities.
He “should be better known,” said Jim Dawson, an antiquarian bookseller who calls himself Trappe’s “unofficial official historian.” (The town’s name, he says, is likely derived from a tavern once located here).
Dawson is ready to enlighten: inside his bookstore along Ocean Gateway, he prints out a pamphlet of information about Hopkins’ life. He was born enslaved in Talbot County around 1834, and escaped during the Civil War, enlisting in the Union army. Various accounts say he was discharged due to illness.
Back in Trappe after the war’s end, he helped found Scotts United Methodist Church, whose white clapboard building on Main Street still hosts worshippers for Bible studies and weekly services. The vestibule holds a framed family tree with names of Hopkins’ children with his wife, Caroline, and their descendants. Though he never learned to read or write himself, Hopkins helped establish schools for Black children.
And in 1867, he approached Talbot County’s white leaders in Easton about creating a parade.
“He was one Black man that went up against a committee of white people alone,” said Gibbs, gathered with relatives in a small garden named for Uncle Nace along Trappe’s Main Street. “That’s what I like about him, his bravery.” Though she considers herself a kind and humble person, as her relative was, she’s much more introverted.
He was also a political figure, a Lincoln Republican who helped bring in African American votes following the end of the Civil War. He was, by many accounts, a persuasive and powerful orator.
Despite widespread Confederate sympathies on the Eastern Shore, Trappe’s emancipation parade has always included Black and white residents, says Paul Callahan, a Trappe resident who grew up in nearby Oxford. “Nace Hopkins was so well-respected in the community, by so many throughout Talbot County,” he said. During the parade, “everyone came together.”
According to Dawson, Hopkins also tried to establish a Black village near Trappe, purchasing land that he wanted to rent to others in a sort of 19th-century housing development. That dream ended in foreclosure. But several of his relatives today live in a manner of which he would no doubt approve.
Cornfields just behind them, their homes, side by side on Trappe’s Main Street, form a direct line to the church Hopkins helped start, just across the road from his grave site. Relatives gather at a moment’s notice for a family cookout, or to be photographed for a newspaper.
“We are really and truly a fun family and we are very, very close to one another,” said Gibbs. “If there’s a problem, we come out to help one another.”
Looking at a photo of Hopkins, Gibbs marvels at the similarities between her male relatives, particularly Chase, her uncle, and the man she calls “Uncle Nace.”
“After all these years,” she said, “These guys are still looking like Uncle Nace.”