HAMPTON, Va. - A living witness to history resides on the Hampton University campus — the Emancipation Oak.
The majestic oak is reported to be approximately 309 years old, and in its current state will likely serve as a silent witness to history for many years to come.
Monday, June 20th is Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last enslaved people to get the word in Texas of their freedom in the Confederate states in 1865. But free and enslaved Black people in this region of Virginia were among the first to learn of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier under the Emancipation Oak.
Hampton University History Professor Robert Watson says, “That’s where the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation took place in the South, but it all centers around the oak tree.”
Watson says while the document, written and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, is celebrated, he also notes there was a political purpose in its intent. “The one thing historians are clear about now, is that it was issued as an act of military necessity and not as an act of humanitarian concern,” Watson said.
That said, the Hampton University Museum has one of the pens President Lincoln used to sign the document.
“It’s an honor to have it here,” Watson said.
For most folks in Hampton Roads, it’s a day trip to see the Emancipation Oak near Hampton University’s campus, and worth the visit if you are a student of history.
Now, 156 years later, the words of freedom that were read under the tree are now celebrated on Juneteenth, an official federal holiday.