By Ashley Benkarski
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, TN — While Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black Americans nationally, some places in the South can trace their day of freedom to other days.
In Clarksville, August 8 is Freedom Day, one that African Americans in Montgomery County have celebrated for some time now. This year, the unveiling of five new historical markers memorializing African American history in the area will be part of the event.
“The reason for observing August 8th as opposed to January 1st or even September 22nd—the day Lincoln announced the preliminary Proclamation in 1862—remains speculative,” the Tennessee Historical Society’s website explains. One popular theory is that Sam Johnson, a former slave of Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson, helped found the original celebrations back in 1871. Gov. Johnson had officially freed his slaves Aug. 8, 1963.
The markers will recognize the site of the Montgomery County Negro Agricultural Fair, the headquarters of the United States Colored Troops, the Lincoln Homes, Pope G. Garrett, Sr. and the site of Clarksville’s Slave Market downtown.
The celebration is scheduled to take place at the site of the former Negro Fairgrounds across from Edith Pettus Park on Aug. 6 at 11 a.m. Pope G. Garrett’s daughter, who is now 101, may be in attendance, joining Pope G. Garrett III, who is scheduled to speak.
“This is an opportunity to start off the August 8 celebrations right,” Murphy said. “What better way to go into the August 8 celebration of freedom than erecting these historical markers in a town that was built on the backs of individuals in enslaved labor … Clarksville was a huge tobacco hub, exporting it across the globe. The individuals who were enslaved and sold unfortunately in the slave market played into the economic prowess of Clarksville.” The historical markers are the fruits of the efforts of The Tennessee African American Historical Research Group that includes Frederick Murphy, Jackie Collins and Tracy Jepson. Although it can be a long and tedious process, Murphy said that with some effort, it’s a task anyone can accomplish. “Anyone can erect a historical marker as long as you provide the primary resources and secondary resources to … speak truth to the claim of the individual seeking the marker,” he said. And though one person can get a marker commissioned, Murphy said there’s strength in numbers. “I’ve always found it best to have a collective of individuals that are seeking the same recognition and then putting everyone to work writing, compiling the information and putting together the narrative of what the marker will say,” he explained. “Like the ‘traditional history’ chronicled by academic historians prior to the 1960s, the state’s marker program initially reflected the experiences and issues most relevant to a small minority—almost all male, white, and affluent. The narratives of African Americans, Native Americans, other people of color, and women were predominantly missing,” the Tennessee Historical Commission website explains. It’s for this reason the commission of these new markers in Clarksville is so important. “It was an opportunity to reconnect, and to also connect those things that I didn’t even know as it relates to my ancestral lineage,” Murphy, a 2004 Tennessee State University graduate, said of his research into the area in which he grew up. He found that Montgomery County was rife with Black history. “It was very gratifying knowing that for one, the information was available and then, two, how embraced it was by the community.” Murphy, a Licensed Professional Counselor, is the founder of History Before Us, “a project centered on capturing, preserving and advocating influential history,” the website explains. His experience in the social, personal and historical spheres allow him to delve deeper and uncover narratives more humanely and truthfully than the use of statistics and hypotheses can. “You were able to see where the history was so adorned in Nashville as it relates to Black history,” he continued. “You’ve got three HBCUs that are there, and North Nashville is very near and dear to our hearts. And that is when I really grasped the enormous amount of Black history in Middle Tennessee. Now, for me to be an adult and go back and do this research, I’m finding the linkage between all of these different places. It’s just been wonderful being able to … go back in time and find these connections between all of these Middle Tennessee families.” Ultimately, Murphy said the goal is to “Explore the rich history of Clarksville in solidarity with the individuals in Middle Tennessee, in general, that are starting to amplify even more these stories of Black folks. It’s time for Clarksville to come and join that front.” To learn more about Murphy’s film project, visit historybeforeus.com. For more information on the history of the August 8 freedom celebrations, visit tennesseehistory.org/eighth-august-emancipation-day-tennessee/.