Emancipation Oak at Hampton U. was first classroom for newly freed African Americans


HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — This month, we’ve been showing you some of the hidden histories in our community. One of them is hard to miss, but you may not know its significance. 

Not far from the hustle of college students and the rush of traffic sits a living piece of history.

The Emancipation Oak sits proudly on Hampton University’s campus, where it’s been for more than 400 years.

“It was under this tree that the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation took place in the south,” said Robert Watson, who is a historian and assistant professor at Hampton University. 

Those words, which freed African American men and women, changed the course of history.

“Look at a different time in history, when I could not have been standing here basically as a free person,” said Watson.

Watson says the massive oak is a symbol of strength and struggle.  “They chose this particular tree because they wanted a place that represented the strength of a people, in terms of the oak, the long standing of the tree.  This was an area, all around this area is where, and Downtown Hampton is where there were slave people.”

It’s significance is not lost on students today. 

Jordan McKinney, a student at Hampton University, said, “It’s just a testament to see how times go and see how progress can be made. 

“When we think about how education was forced here in secrecy, and we can be out on campus, all these different buildings, all these different classrooms, be able to choose a major, different academic programs things like that — it’s like, ‘Wow, we’ve evolved.”

It also served as the first classroom for newly freed African American men and women, thanks to a well-known name on campus.

McKinney said, “Mrs. Mary Smith Peak.  She held classes here, she was the daughter of a free slave and she risked her life because back then, it was against Virginia law to educate blacks or black slaves.”

From the shade of a tree, to a university — things have changed, but education is still the focus. 

“It means a lot to you to just sit here and think about the people that were educated here,” said Naya Matrin, who is also a student at Hampton University.  “Now we go to school in these big classrooms and buildings, but this tree provided shade to people while they were learning and getting their education so it really sits with you in a heavy way.”

As the oak’s branches keep growing, students keep arriving — aware of the past that shaped their future and the perserverence that carried this nation through tough times.

“It’s always a great reminder of all the possibilities we have ahead of us,” said Martin.

McKinney said, “We as students today must always appreciate the sacrifice that came before us to get to where we are now.”

“The people who are struggling for equality have withstood the hardness of times,” said Watson. 

Students and visitors are always welcome to visit the Emancipation Oak

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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