The African American Folklorist: August 8th Emancipation Day

Aug 11, 2021

WKU Professor Emeritus Dr. John Hardin.
Credit WKU Dept. of History

Earlier this summer, President Joe Briden proclaimed June 19th, 2021 as "Juneteenth Day of Observance." It's named for the day in 1865 when Union Troops arrived in Galveston, TX, announcing to over a quarter of a million enslaved people that they were free.

The news brought both celebration and skepticism throughout the Black community nationwide, since a large percentage of people knew nothing of the event.

The same can be said about the August 8th celebration specific to western Kentucky, and surrounding areas.

Western Kentucky University Professor Emeritus John Hardin says August 8th celebrates emancipation in Kentucky.

"One source suggests that Kentucky communities recognized the abolition of slavery in the West Indies in 1834, another version says that Tennessee's then-military Gov. Andrew Johnson freed his slaves in his jurisdiction about the 8th of August 1864," Dr. Hardin said.

He said western Kentucky began celebrating with pageants, picnics and church services.

Early celebrations can be traced to Allentown, KY. Participants called it "Homecoming Day for Black People." The festivities lasted a week, ending with a picnic on August 8.

"In the early 1900s, it shifted in terms of celebration sites to Paducah, and it became the largest 8th of August emancipation celebration. They had special trains that came from Hopkinsville, Louisville to Paducah," Dr. Hardin said.

This was a big event that cost a good penny in those days for a round trip ticket to participate.

Dr. Hardin said some years, hundreds of railroad tickets were purchased to attend. Meanwhile, whites in surrounding areas began growing angrier with the celebration, leading to shots being fired through railroad coaches of attendees in 1908.

"All of this simply means is that over the years, these events primarily in western Kentucky became places for celebration. But word spread about Emancipation Day all the way to Illinois, some even came from Tennessee, Dr. Hardin said. 

Over a century later, communities in Kentucky, like Paducah and Russellville, are still honoring August 8th.