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Celebrations look different for Tennessee's Emancipation Day, on Aug. 8

On Aug. 8, 1863, word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Tennessee. A Blount Co. couple wanted to show people the significance of that day.

BLOUNT COUNTY, Tenn. — Emancipation Day falls on Aug. 8 in Tennessee. It's the anniversary of when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the state, in 1863, and when soon-to-be president Andrew Johnson freed his own slaves.

It's been 157 years since that day, and a Blount County couple realized that many people in the community had no idea what the Aug. 8 meant for Tennesseans. So, they made it their mission to change that.

Cato and Shirley Clowney are 84 and 85, and they have been married 62 years. They live in Shirley's hometown in Blount County, but Cato grew up in West Tennessee.

The pair moved from Tennessee to New Jersey for nearly three decades. When they returned, they realized many people in the community weren't celebrating the eighth of August.

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"When we moved back here, not many people in this area knew anything about the eighth of August," Shirley Clowney said.

Katheline Tate, a resident in Alcoa, said she remembered celebrating as a child with her family.

"Churches in Alcoa coordinated the activities and families gathered at a park on E. Franklin St. We participated in games such as sack races, horse shoes, leap frog, hop scotch, jump rope, and croquet.  There was lots of delicious food such as hot dogs, dip dogs, (now called corn dogs) hamburgers, homemade chili, potato salad, Cole slaw, fried chicken, barbecue ribs, baked beans, corn on the cob, watermelon and homemade ice cream, soft drinks, lemonade and iced tea," Tate said in an email.

During segregation in Knox County, Black people were only allowed to go to Chilhowee Park on Aug. 8 to celebrate. The significance of the day wasn't talked about much.

"This was shocking," Cato Clowney said. "The day the slaves were freed in the state of Tennessee, nobody knew about it."

So, they aimed to change that through freedom celebrations in Blount County on Aug. 8 every year, starting in the 1990s. They had food, poetry, speakers and always gathered a big audience.

"We had a crowd every year that we celebrated," Shirley Clowney said.

Some years, they even celebrated with the Beck Cultural Exchange Center along with the organization's own Blount County celebrations.

Now, they say they're getting older, and want to see more done in churches, communities and in homes. They're encouraging the younger generation to carry the torch.

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"Pick up your cross and carry it," Shirley Clowney said. "You've got to make a difference by being involved and by sharing what you know that other people may not know."

This year, the pandemic canceled many celebrations, but they did not let that stop them from educating their own family.

"We are gonna have a cookout and we're going to share and play games and hopefully they will be more aware of this day in their lives," Shirley Clowney said.

The Beck Cultural Exchange Center hosted its annual "libation ceremony" Saturday morning online. People honored their ancestors in the cemetery next to Knoxville College, where former slaves are buried.