Currently – simultaneously entering into the thirteenth year of the 21st century and of the second millennium A.D. – America is in the midst of observing the sesquicentennial of its Civil War which began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861, and ended at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. Amid the period of that four year conflict, President Abraham Lincoln – on September 22, 1862 – issued the decree famously known as the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The issuing of the preliminary proclamation was the first official action taken to dismantle a flawed segment of America’s history which began in the 17th century and lasted past the mid – 19th century, namely, the infamous institution of slavery. Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation – though unenforceable at the time he issued it – promised freedom to all slaves who were held in any seceded, rebellious southern states of the Union if such state had not rejoined the Union by January 1, 1863 the date that the proclamation was signed. However, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was ratified circa December 18, 1865, put the decisive power of the Constitution behind Lincoln’s promise of freedom, thus, officially and legally freeing all salves in America.
The 13th Amendment states as follows:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime where the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States or any territory subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.“
The emancipation of the slaves prompted jubilant celebrations, annually, in many parts of the nation, on varying dates commensurate with various dates of the five installments of the emancipation process. That included neighboring Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties who celebrated in early January for many years. Tennessee and some other southern states celebrated on September 22, in keeping with the date of the issuing of the preliminary proclamation by President Lincoln, and some places celebrated on August 5th, annually, in keeping with the date of the first installment of the emancipation process.
Locally, however, in Tappahannock/Essex County, on April 3, 1877 – twelve years after the ending of the Civil War and 135 years ago, this year (2012) – the first page of a unique chapter of Tappahannock/Essex County’s history was written as local beneficiaries of the emancipation process – the former slaves joined by the antebellum free Negroes - staged their first jubilant response to having been “set free.” Their response carved its niche in local history styled as “The Third of April Emancipation Celebration.” Taking note from Tappahannock Town Office’s documents and other available records, the celebration was an event that has yet to be surpassed, locally, in meticulous planning, honorable execution, meaningful purpose and longevity of duration – more than 75 consecutive years. Available documents citing the anniversary in varying years serve as reliable sources to establish the beginning date and ending era of the celebrations.
Office’s documents and other available records, the celebration was an event that has yet to be surpassed, locally, in meticulous planning, honorable execution, meaningful purpose and longevity of duration – more than 75 consecutive years. Available documents citing the anniversary in varying years serve as reliable sources to establish the beginning date and ending era of the celebrations.
The former slaves and antebellum free blacks in Essex County chose the third day of April to celebrate the emancipation because that date was commensurate with the date of the last major event of the Civil War, which took place in Richmond, Virginia. Just six days before the war’s ending, the Confederate Army abandoned the city of Richmond in defeat as the Union army, consisting of numerous black troops, conquered it. Thus, the “fall of Richmond” was deemed a promising victory for Essex County black citizens who were less than fifty miles away from the happening…and so they chose to commemorate that event!
A group organized to formulate matters and dubbed themselves “The Celebration Club.” Thus, all plans for the gala emancipation celebration each year thereafter were laid by the “Celebration Club.” Fast forwarding to 1930s, and continuing until the termination of the celebration in the 1950s, - the period of time for which a ledger of official minutes is available - Miss Ruth C. Corbin of Brays, served as the recording secretary of the Celebration Club. Through her efficient record-keeping and through verbal accounts from senior citizens who remembered, a vivid mental picture has been portrayed of the happenings in Tappahannock on the “Third of April” in the yesteryears, as follows:
The day began at 10:00a.m. at the First Baptist Church Tappahannock, or in later years, the Essex County Training School, with a religious/patriotic recognition of the celebration’s purpose, and a memorial tribute to the veterans of wars which sometimes included visiting and decorating the graves of the fallen. That opening ceremony was followed by the festivities of Prince Street. The fete included floats and marching bands. Drill teams performed and flags waved. Horses, mounted by skillful riders, pranced down Prince Street, which was lined with hundreds of celebrants who had come to celebrate the occasion of being “set free.” Most years, the horses in the parade had been supplied by Mack Moore and George Bowens, both prominent Essex county citizens. Among the chief marshals, who led the parade, through the years were Matthew McGuire, who was affiliated with the American Legion. Others who served in this capacity were William T. “Bookie” Latane, Jesse Bowens, Mr. Evans, and Mr. Dobbins. The Red Cross Drill Teams were, in intermittent years, directed by the “Messers” Puritan Jones, Alice Young, Elizabeth Vaughn, Esther Harris, and Sarah Robinson. Also, Miss Marguerite Morris and Mr. George Roy among others.
Records reveal that, through the years, among the participating marching bands were Mr. Pitt’s Band of Philadelphia in the 1930s; the Hanover and Matthew Counties Bands in 1942, the Maggie L. Walker High School Band of Richmond in 1944, and again in 1948; Mr. Coleman’s Band in 1947, the Bundy Boys Band of Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1949, and the Capital City Band of Richmond in 1952. The Maggie L Walker High School Band apparently required transportation provided by the Celebration Club, and in compliance with their request, as recorded in the March 15, 1948 minutes; the secretary was authorized to write the school to inform them that “the bus will arrive for the band at 7:30 a.m.”
Some years according to those who remember, Essex County’s schools were closed on the day of the Third of April celebration. Local merchants closed their shop doors for the day – for whatever reason - and town officials, in obedience to the call, extended words of welcome to the celebrants who had come from Essex and surrounding counties and far- away places as they filled the town. They came, in the early years by horse drawn buggies, wagons, or by foot. Then, as the years passed, they came by buses, cars or whatsoever convenient mode of transportation that was available. Upon arriving in town, vehicles were tagged – for whatever reason – and parking restrictions were tight. Among the town officials who participated through the years was Mayor George C. Clanton whose name appears on the official program of the 75th anniversary program in 1952 and other years.
To sustain the physical needs of the celebrants, tables or stands with food and soft drinks of many varieties lined the streets – set up by various groups or organizations. Water barrels were placed in various locations, and portable restrooms were appropriately stationed.
In like manner, “law and order,” was the demand of the day; therefore, certain Negro citizens were empowered with the authority of policemen to aid the maintenance of a peaceful, orderly gathering and to deal with the law breakers if there were any. Among those so deputized, at intermitted years, were Lewis McGuire, Thornton Taylor, Thomas Johnson, George Wright, and James Lane.
The highlight of the Third of April Emancipation Celebration each year was a keynote address delivered by a notable African-American personality. That feature of the event took place in the Essex County Courthouse, and available records dating from the 1930s name many. Among them were Dr. J. Rupert Picott, Dr. Luther Porter Jackson and Lawyer T. C. Walker.
Dr. J. Rupert Picott served as Assistant Director-Membership Section - of the National Education Association (NEA) in its headquarters office in Washington, D.C., where he also had other NEA responsibilities. Prior to joining forces with the NEA, he had served twenty-two years as Executive Secretary of the Virginia Teachers’ Association (VTA) and later authored a book on the history of the organization. In addition, Dr. Picott later served as the fourth director of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, succeeding its founder Dr. Carter G. Woodson and two others who followed Dr. Woodson. In the course of time, Dr. Proctor was also a professor at Virginia Union University in Richmond. Dr. Picott emphasized the importance of getting an education, stressing that education is the key that opens the doors to success.
Another notable speaker was Dr. Luther Porter Jackson, a native of Kentucky and a professor of History at Virginia State College (University) in Petersburg. He was also prominently affiliated with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and with the Virginia Teachers’ Association. Further, Dr. Jackson conducted extensive research on African-American History in every county in the state of Virginia. Additionally, Dr. Jackson, a personality who championed many causes including that of a staunch civic leader, advocated registering and voting as a civic duty to change the status quo. He coined the phrase “a voteless people is a hopeless people.” Thus he left his footprints in every county in an effort to increase the black ballots at the polls.
Orator Lawyer T. C. Walker, a native of Gloucester County, was an administrator in the Federal Works Project Administration (WPA) set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Program. The only black administrator in the state of Virginia, Lawyer Walker did much to improve the economic plight of Negroes through job creation and training, and promoting self- improvement. He stressed the importance of land and home ownership.
Still other notable personalities who brought messages of great value to the “Third of April Emancipation Celebrants” included Gilbert Gladden of Hampton, Pastor Melvin Chick of the First Baptist Church in Tappahannock, Dr. C.C. Spaulding, President of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Attorney Linwood Smith of Richmond who delivered the 75th Anniversary message in 1952, and Mrs. Ethel C. Dandridge, Spotsylvania County’s Public Schools Jeans Supervisor. It is noted in the 1942 celebration’s planning meeting, the secretary was authorized to write a letter of invitation to nationally and internationally acclaimed educator Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune, founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College, to be the keynote speaker for that year. However, it is not known if she accepted.
The Celebration Club, which annually planned the Emancipation Day celebration, had a twofold purpose, as out lined in its constitution: (1) to celebrate the emancipation of the Negro, and (2) to foster the educational and civic advancement of Negro people in Essex County.
From the club’s minutes book, efficiently kept by Ruth C. Morris, it is revealed that the club was divided into six districts; namely, Tappahannock, Desha, Mount Landing, Occupia, Center Cross, and Miller’s Tavern. Each district had a president, a secretary, and a treasurer. Each district held its separate meetings monthly; and the mass meeting, with all of the districts coming together, was held five times a year. The months of the mass meetings were March, April, June, September, and December.
Among the officers who served from 1939 to the 1950s were the Reverend P.R. Liverpool, Matthew C. McGuire, and T. Delmas Harris as presidents; the Reverend Aston Hamilton and Miss Marguerite Morris as vice presidents; Miss Ruth C. Corbin (Morris) as recording secretary; and T.S. Manning as treasurer. Linsy Holmes and Matthew McGuire were among those who served as district chairperson. Lewis McGuire annually served as one of the foremost organizers of the event as revealed in the records in the Tappahannock Town Office.
The citizens of Tappahannock and other locations in Essex County generously opened their homes to host the meetings of the Celebration Club. Among those revealed in the minutes were the homes of Delmas and Esther Harris, the Messers Janie Gaines, Sarah Robinson, Puritan Jones, Georgie Jackson, Rose Dunning, and Lydia Corbin. Also, Lewis and Ida McGuire, Mrs. Louise Washington, the Wyatts, Mack McGuire, Mason Buckner, Miss Bessie Roane, Miss Marguerite Morris, E. Baily, and Howard Brown.
The Odd Fellows Hall and the First Baptist Church, both in Tappahannock, were also generously available to accommodate the meetings of the Celebration Club, as the members eloquently laid plans for “The Third of April” celebration, which commemorated the downfall of Richmond during the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, which liberated the ancestors of black Americans.
Story and photos contributed by: Lillian H. McGuire