Thomaston, Georgia: May 29 Emancipation Day Celebration
May 2011 will witness the 146th annual organized celebration of Emancipation in Upson County, Georgia. Each year beginning May 29, 1866, people of Upson and surrounding counties have converged on the town of Thomaston to celebrate the Emancipation of the slaves. This is the oldest, continuously-observed annual emancipation event in the USA; yet the reasons that the first organizers selected May 29 are now obscure.
On June 5, 1903, the Thomaston Times commented that “the 29th of May is a great day for the negroes of Thomaston and all the surrounding communities for about forty miles square. . . . For some reason known only to the negroes, and perhaps by a very small portion of them.” The editor did not bother to consult any ex-slaves, not even William Guilford, the leading organizer of the first annual Emancipation Celebration held on May 29, 1866, who still lived in Thomaston until his death in 1909. Through the years writers in the Times discussed their theories, but none of them satisfactorily answer the question—why May 29th?
May 29th must have had distinct significance to the freedpeople of Upson. The date of the first organized anniversary celebration, May 29, 1866, was a Tuesday—not on a weekend—so working people disrupted the rhythm of their workweek to attend this celebration. Local lawyer James W. Greene reported the very first annual commemoration of Emancipation in a letter to General Davis Tillson, Georgia’s Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, on May 30, 1866: “[The] freedmen had a brilliant Celebration at this place on yesterday.” Clearly this date was special.
Although May 29 was not the anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), the date fell in summertime time, 1865, when a victorious Union army in Georgia finally made the promise of the Proclamation a reality for Upson County’s slaves. General James H. Wilson’s Union cavalry raid swarmed through Upson County April 19-20 (ten days after General R. E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox), and on May 10, U. S. president Andrew Johnson declared hostilities at an end. Within days General Q. A. Gilmore, commanding the U.S. military department that included Georgia, announced that “the people of the black race are free citizens of the United States.” Gilmore’s order was printed in the Athens Southern Watchman, May 31, 1865, and reprinted by other newspapers. Public speakers throughout the state in late May and early June declared slavery “a dead issue,” although in the minds of some slave owners slavery still lived. Some slaveholders clung to the fantasy that perhaps the victorious United States would reverse its policy and allow the South to keep its slaves as if the war had never happened—or if owners just acted in the old way the slaves would just keep on working as before. On July 13 Georgia’s Provisional Governor, James Johnson, felt compelled to remind his fellow-citizens that “slavery is extinct, and involuntary servitude no longer exists.” Although talk of freedom and the end of slavery was in the air throughout the summer of 1865, this does not explain why people of Upson County celebrate May 29th.
In its June 1, 1906, issue the Thomaston Times returned to the topic of the origins of “the 29th of May.” The editor consulted Judge J. E. F. Matthews who speculated that the date did not commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation, but instead marked what he called President Johnson’s “Proclamation of Peace on the 29th of May, 1865, and . . . the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United states, which provided for the prohibition of slavery forever in all the States.” Judge Matthews’ theory does not stand up to scrutiny. First of all, the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted on December 6, 1865—not even close to May 29. Second, President Johnson did indeed issue a proclamation on that date, but its title was not the “Proclamation of Peace”; rather, its title was “Proclamation 134 – Granting Amnesty to Participants in the Rebellion, with Certain Exceptions.” Although Judge Matthews’ theory was wrong, he was probably closer than he realized. President Johnson’s May 29th proclamation may be the key to understanding our Upson Emancipation Proclamation Celebration, not because of anything Johnson said about “peace,” but because of what he said about slavery.
Johnson’s proclamation did indeed intend “that peace, order, and freedom may be established,” but his main purpose was to define terms of amnesty for former Confederates. The president offered “to all persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion . . . amnesty and pardon, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves.” To claim amnesty, ex-Confederates had to swear an oath to “faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God.” President Johnson’s proclamation, in effect, required Upson County’s slaveholders to “faithfully support” the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln had issued over two years earlier.
President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation was printed in southern newspapers within days and was widely known in Georgia by early June 1865. Johnson’s proclamation caused each ex-Confederate to face the fact that in order to re-claim U.S. citizenship he or she had to swear an oath acknowledging that the slaves were free. Although a US Army officer would not arrive in Thomaston to take oaths until August 28, most slave owners in Upson County did not wait so long to act on the new reality. (The slaves, of course, had always known that the war would decide their status, but many would wait to see what their former owners would do about it.) Sallie Blakely, formerly enslaved in Thomaston by William A. Cobb, told to an interviewer in 1937, “When freedom was declared, Mr. Cobb called his slaves together and read the papers to them telling them that they were free.”
We know for a fact that President Johnson’s proclamation prompted a nearby slave owner, James C. Freeman, to tell his slaves they were free. Freeman, who lived at nearby Flat Shoals, Meriwether County, owned a man named Houston Hartsfield Holloway, born in Upson County, who later recorded his experience of emancipation. Monday morning, June 5, 1865, Holloway tells us, was “the greatest day that I had ever known.” Slave owner Freeman visited each of his three plantations and “Cald all of the Slaves up and set them free.”
What had prompted James C. Freeman to free his slaves June 5, 1865? Freeman testified before the Southern Claims Commission in Washington, D.C, ten years later:
Q: How many negroes did you own? A: I had 137 about.
Q: Did you set your negroes free at any time, or how was it? A: I set them free after the proclamation.
Q: How long after? A: Just as soon as it came out.
Q: What did you do to set them free? A: I just called them up and told them they were free by the laws of the country—the proclamation.
The only proclamation that could have prompted Freeman to free his slaves “just as soon as it came out” was President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation of May 29, 1865.
Why is Emancipation celebrated in Upson County on May 29? We have only indirect clues, but until some yet-undiscovered document gives us a better answer, it may be that President Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation forced Upson County slaveholders to acknowledge what the slaves had known ever since January 1, 1863. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, while it had freed only a few thousand slaves on the day it was issued, had made emancipation of the South’s slaves United States military policy, and therefore also the nation’s policy. Furthermore, by opening the door to recruitment of black soldiers, Lincoln’s Proclamation had made black citizenship in the United States an implied pledge that could not later be denied. On May 29, 1865, Lincoln was dead, but a new president’s proclamation seemed to confirm those past promises to an oppressed people.