The Freedom Tree

The tree under which Mary Smith Peake conducted her outdoor classes, teaching the contrabands how to read, write, and do arithmetic, is also where the area's black community first learned of their freedom. Under the sheltering branches of the giant oak, the Emancipation Proclamation was read, most likely on New Year's Day of 1863, possibly by one of the newly literate contrabands: "By the President of the United States of America...all persons held as slaves...shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

The Emancipation Oak, as it is now known, is a southern live oak tree (scientific name: Quercus virginiana). It still stands in Hampton, Virginia, on the campus of Hampton University. Its sprawling branches measure nearly one hundred feet in diameter. It has been designated one of the Ten Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society.


Image: Jason Portell

© Susan VanHecke 2022