Emancipation Day is one of the longest running holidays and traditions in Paducah. Dating back to at least 1886, the celebration put the city on the map across our country as people from places like Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and other points came to celebrate the freedom granted to slave. Some years, upwards of 20,000 would travel in via steamboat and rail line. Railroads in major cities would often offer special rates for one- or two- day trips to Paducah.
The date of the celebration is uniquely Paducah. As far back as we can discover, it has traditionally been the 8th of August. The celebration is so synonymous with that date that for most of its history, it has simply been known as the 8th of August celebration, much akin to the 4th of July. The reason why it is celebrated on that day is still shrouded in mystery. Yes, the prevailing reason is that news of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, didn't reach Paducah until August 8 of the same year.
There are two reasons that cast doubt on this explanation, however. News sometimes did travel slow, but such large news would have been hard to keep from this area, especially for eight months. The telegraph provided instant communication, and Paducah had been outfitted with a telegraph office for quite some time. Rail service provided fast transportation of people in and out of Paducah, and the Post Office Department had been running mail since 1792.
Additionally, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to rebel states. It did not apply to Kentucky as it was not part of the confederacy and was a border state in the war. One thought is that Lincoln did not push the issue too much initially in order to preserve the fragile control over Kentucky and other border area states. The Emancipation, in effect, did not end slavery. The practice did not cease in Kentucky until December 18, 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment became a part of the Constitution.
There are several theories on why the date was picked. One of the earliest clues comes from the Paducah Daily-News Democrat on August 8, 1905 when it was stated the celebration date was chosen to not only celebrate the ending of slavery in the U.S. but also to honor the the first emancipation of slaves in Haiti which occurred on that date in late 1700s making the nation the first black republic in the West. A French declaration called "The Declaration of the Rights of Man" stated that "All men are free and equal." It was against the French that the slave rebellion occurred, making August the 8th a day of Independence and a watershed moment for those bound in forced servitude.
Other theories include the defeat of Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and his resulting resignation on August 8. It is also thought that freed slaves who wanted to leave the area were given escort out of Paducah on August 8th.
A more plausible theory states that the date may have been imported from Tennessee. Andrew Johnson, Tennessee resident and previous Governor, and future U.S. Vice President and President was a slave owner. Johnson had convinced President Lincoln to exempt Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Mired in controversy over his personal feelings, he soon, for whatever reason, recanted. On August 8, 1863, he freed his family slaves in Greeneville and make his first antislavery speech in Franklin, TN later that month.
African-Americans in Tennessee largely celebrated Emancipation on the 8th of August after that event. Greeneville became a mecca for the gatherings, much like Paducah is today. Eastern Kentucky communities along with people in Nasvhille, Memphis, and Southeast Missouri celebrated on the same day. Many African-Americans from Tennessee moved into Kentucky, some settling in and around Paducah. It is plausible that the celebration came with them.
While the chosen date provides historians with an interesting problem to solve, in the end, it really doesn't matter. In an August 7, 2000 Paducah Sun article, Gladman Humbles brought an interesting point to the debate when he asked, "What difference does it make? For 245 years we had nothing to celebrate."
The point is well-taken. The 8th of August Emancipation Celebration in Paducah still thrives after at least 128 years, and, like in the early 1900s, is known across our nation. And it should be.
We commemorate the time that the bonds of slavery were torn asunder from a people so long oppressed by a vitriolic practice. No matter when word arrived and the slaves in Kentucky were finally freed, the news surely fell upon gracious ears. This is a cause to celebrate, no matter the date.
For more information on 8th of August activities, visit the Paducah Visitor's Bureau.