The 8th of August Emancipation Celebration in Paducah is the longest-running such celebration in the nation.
That information and more came from a program featuring Alicestyne Turley, a history professor who taught at the Department of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, Georgetown College and Berea College.
Turley, now a resident of Cave City, spoke Thursday at the Hotel Metropolitan on the history of Emancipation Saturday, which marks when freedom was declared for Black people in the United States.
“Most people don’t look at African-American history until after the Civil War,” she told The Sun. “I’ve always been fascinated by African-American history from the colonial era through the Civil War.”
The program was a part of the “Evening Upstairs” series held by the McCracken County Public Library.
Turley said McCracken and Livingston counties are “a well-traveled area, historically,” adding that a lot of the history is just now being uncovered.
“In fact, when I drive here and I drive through Smithland, I want that to be my next book,” she said. “Because it has such a great Underground Railroad tragic story.”
Turley spoke of the story of Seth Concklin, who worked with the Underground Railroad.
“He was actually caught here in Smithland and was murdered by those who caught him for helping the slaves escape,” she said.
Turley said the 8th of August celebration has been going on in Paducah since the 1860s. Articles found in The Paducah Sun from the 1890s spoke of the celebration being an area tradition for several years.
“Even though it started in Appalachia — which is where I’m from, eastern Kentucky — we will celebrate on Aug. 13 because we always celebrate what we call the Second Saturday,” she said. “This will be our 158th Emancipation Saturday Celebration.”
While there have been a number of reasons given for the origin of the 8th of August celebration — from Haiti’s independence to the day that people in this area heard about the Emancipation Proclamation — Turley said the day started as a celebration of when Andrew Johnson freed his own slaves in 1863 while he was the military governor of Tennessee.
“I know that the first (8th of August celebration) was held in Greeneville, Tennessee, and spread throughout Appalachia,” Turley said in explanation of how the 8th of August tradition came from the eastern side of the state to Paducah.
“At the end of the Civil War and in the early 1900s, African-Americans were pretty much run out. … many of them left the mountains and came here to western Kentucky on the river.”
Turley said the 8th of August origin has been linked to Samuel Johnson, a former slave of Andrew Johnson. She also dispelled the story of that date being the first time for Kentuckians to hear of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“They were already recruiting soldiers here, so they already knew about it,” she said. “The military couldn’t have been recruiting heavily here without the Emancipation Proclamation, so they certainly knew about it.”
Turley said that Paducah’s celebration is the longest-running celebration because the areas where the celebration began had stopped celebrating it at some point.
Turley also promoted the sale of her book, “The Gospel of Freedom,” available for preorder through amazon.com. The book will be available later this month.