By Donna Smith ~
Reflecting on the many symbols of American freedom brings to mind a proud eagle soaring over treetops, Old Glory waving her colors, fireworks sparkling and booming over ball fields, amusement parks, and waterways. Another visible symbol of freedom and its cost is the Emancipation Oak, whose limbs sprawl over a hundred feet in diameter. Designated by the National Geographic Society as one of the Ten Great Trees of the World, it is not the largest or oldest, but it may be the most historically significant living tree of any species.
Today the Emancipation Oak stands near the entrance of the Hampton University campus in Hampton, Virginia, perilously close to Interstate sixty-four where millions of cars pass every year. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, during the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), this much younger oak served as the first classroom for newly freed men and women, eager for an education. Union forces had gained control of nearby Fort Monroe where escaped African American slaves sought asylum. To avoid returning them to slaveholders, the Union Army defined them as contraband.
In November 1861, the American Missionary Association (AMA) asked Mary Smith Peake to teach the children of freedmen at the contraband camp connected to Fort Monroe. She started her classes outside, under the branches of this oak tree, three miles from the protective safety of Fort Monroe. The AMA soon provided a cottage for the classes, but it was under this oak, in 1863, that the Virginia Peninsula’s black community gathered to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, leading to its nickname, the Emancipation Oak.
It cannot go unnoticed that this declaration of freedom was read in the middle of a war that threatened to tear our country apart, but the thirst for education persevered. Although Virginia law previously forbade education to the rising number of “contrabands” camped in the area, classes continued. Mrs. Mary Peake, daughter of a freed colored woman and a Frenchman, taught until her death in what became The Butler School.
Countless hardships and untold tragedies followed Lincoln’s Proclamation, but the great oak tree remains steadfast as a symbol of bravery, daring, and the human determination to secure and maintain self-governance. Words alone do not make a declaration so, but the President fought against critics who encouraged him to withhold his proclamation until the war ended.
What strength of will it must have taken not only for Mrs. Peake to educate willing students in defiance of Virginia law, but also for the children and adults who gathered to learn, perhaps understanding that education was the best defense against tyranny. Imagine what stories that old oak tree could tell, if trees could talk.
The role symbols play in reflecting on freedom simply represent their stories, and the Emancipation Oak in Hampton, Virginia, stands today, representing the act of being set free; the state of not being enslaved; the right to act, speak or think as one wants; the freedoms we celebrate.
Southern live oaks, like the one standing tall in Hampton, have the botanical name of “Quercus virginiana,” though only a few grow in a limited part of Virginia, its northern limit being the southeastern corner of the state. This evergreen oak tree, particularly iconic of the Old South, typically grows forty to eighty feet tall with a short trunk, low branches and a broad-spreading rounded crown. Although Mary Peake opted to teach under “her” oak tree for its shade and proximity to Fort Monroe, its majestic longevity stands tall and steadfast on the campus now known as Hampton University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black universities.
I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, not far from that grand old tree. As children, we were taught to respect its historical presence, but I doubt we really understood its significance. Not until we moved away and learned the true relevance of “being Southern” have we embraced the positive changes that have evolved in our society. Exactly one hundred years after the Civil War ended, an African-American classmate and I rode together to use the library at what was then called Hampton Institute to work on our senior term papers. On the occasions when freedom rings loudest across our wonderful country, I think about my childhood in Tidewater Virginia and the innocent freedoms we enjoyed not far from the Emancipation Oak.
About the author: Donna Smith is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and a proud Southerner. She is a frequent contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine where this article was originally published in a slightly different form. Thank you, Donna, for sharing your writing with our readers.
Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Black Star.