The 'Emancipation Proclamation' Celebration
This broadside announces that
"the Colored people of Preble County,
recognizing the blessings of Liberty,
will celebrate the 18th anniversary
of their deliverance from bondage"
in Eaton on September 22, 1881.
The noted speaker at the event
was the Reverend W. F. Arnett
of Nashville, Tennessee
A significant topic of concern at the event
was likely the assassination of Ohio-born
President James A. Garfield, which
occurred three days earlier.
Emancipation Proclamation Anniversary Celebration
The Ohio Historical Society
by Lynn Wasnak
Freedom has been celebrated in Gallia County, Ohio,
for 137 years and has special meaning to the
celebrantsmany of whom are descendents
of freed, runaway, and emancipated slaves.
Each September since 1863, African-Americans
have gathered in Gallipolis (pop. 4,180) to
commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation
issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862.
The Emancipation, as the celebration is commonly
called, is reported to be the longest continuous
running event of its kind in the United States.
It features speeches of remembrance
and inspiration, gospel and folk music
and most of all, a place for people to
come together to recall their common ancestry.
"It's like what Marcus Garvey said,
`A people without a knowledge of their
past is like a tree without roots,"'
says Robert Lawson, who grew up in
Oak Hill, 20 miles west of Gallipolis.
"To be anything or go anywhere,
you need to know where you came from
and how difficult the struggles were."
Last year, Lawson, a management consultant
in Portsmouth, Ohio, brought his two youngest
children, James and Michael, to the event
to share his childhood experience.
[The Gallia County residents who are of the
African-American Ethnic Grouping have]
held onto the tradition through strong family
ties and relationships with local churches.
"The people here are secluded in a
way many other communities aren't.
So knowing your heritage matters,"
says Adah Ward Randolph, a professor
at Ohio University in Athens, leafing through
dozens of three-ring binders spread on
tables at the Gallia County Fairgrounds.
Barbara Scott, 70, assembled 35 of the large
binderspacked with photos, news clippings,
historical documents, and memorabiliaherself.
She began compiling the information in 1983
to help her son learn about his grandparents,
and soon the project turned into an extensive
history of African-Americans in Gallia County.
"I remember one year a young man came.
He'd been trying to find his people for a long time,"
Scott recalls. "Looking through one of my books,
suddenly he stopped, pointed at a picture,
and said, `Here is my grandmother!'
Tears just started running down his face."
Respect for the pastand past struggleskeeps
event organizers determined to continue.
Before the Civil War, Gallia County was a haven
for the Mixed-Race children of slaves, says Alice
Conner Coleman, a Chicago resident who comes
every year to learn more about her father's ancestors.
"They kept them in groups to be safe," she explains.
Many so-called "blacks" in the county are
light-skinned, like Tijana Justice Mullins,
an attractive, curly-haired blonde who lives on
part of the Lambert Lands, 20 miles north of Gallipolis.
Three brothers, Virginia plantation owners,
bought the land for their freed slaves in the 1840s.
As a child, Mullins accompanied her
Mixed-Race parents to The Emancipation.
Later, she brought her own daughter,
Standela, to the celebration.
Today, Standela, grown and married, sings slave songs
handed down over the generationson the main stage.
Escaped slaves found refuge in Gallia County, too.
Scott recalls the story of Mary Agnes Wilson, a young
"black" woman crying on a Southern plantation,
afraid she'd be sold to another plantation.
"A soldier, Joseph Smith, said,
`No, I love you. I won't let you be sold.'
Crossing the Ohio River at Point
Pleasant, he carried her to freedom.
They settled in Buck Ridge and
became my great-grandparents."
Family ties and history draw
some; still others come for the food.
"Oh yeah! Whatever you could want," Herman
Mayo says, his eyes lighting up like sparklers.
"... A lady I know fries fish up.
There's corn bread, chicken, bean dinners."
Not to mention the cream pies, cakes, and cobblers.
Best of all, Emancipation feeds the soul.
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Lynn Wasnak is a freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio