COLUMBUS, Miss.—Renita Holmes was in the 11th grade at the Mississippi School for Math and Science in Columbus in 2006 when she asked her African American history teacher, Chuck Yarborough, if the school could create an event to celebrate Black History Month. But Holmes made her suggestion in late February, and Yarborough did not think the school would have enough time to honor Black history properly before the end of the month.
Still, the teacher looked into Black history in Columbus—once a wealthy city with enslaved laborers building ornate homes there—and he learned that the local Black community had celebrated May 8 as Emancipation Day for over a century. Slavery may have officially ended on June 19, 1865, in the U.S., but Union soldiers arrived in Columbus and Lowndes County a month earlier on May 8, 1865, beginning emancipation in the community.
Holmes and Yarborough then together decided to dedicate a program to the historic day and set up MSMS’s first Eighth of May Emancipation Day event.
“If you ever question whether or not your voice can make a difference in the community, look around,” Yarborough said. “Because a 16-year-old girl made a difference in this community, and we’re still carrying it on today.”
This year, MSMS partnered with Mississippi University for Women for the emancipation celebration in the historic Sandfield Cemetery on the warm evening of May 8, 2023, and the college selected Clint Smith’s “How The Word Is Passed” as its first community read to showcase slavery’s history in America. Amanda Clay Powers, dean of MUW’s library services, said the community reading program is a new addition aiming to connect the college with community members by discussing the book together throughout the year.
MSMS students wrote the scripts based on local history of enslaved people in several theatrical skits amid Columbus Middle School Choir renditions of “Glory” and “Stand Up” and MSMS Blue Diamondz and Blue Knightz performances step dance routines.
‘When Does Black History Begin?’
“What does it mean to be Black in America?” Mississippi School for Math and Science student Madison Echols asked on a stage set up in the Sandfield Cemetery. Dressed simply in jeans and a cream-colored T-shirt with the phrase “Respect the existence” written in colorful, all-capital letters, Echols commanded the stage with a powerful yet calm presence.
“As we’re sitting here remembering the momentous day of May the Eighth, recollecting the Black lives liberated and the struggles further, I can’t help but sit here and think, ‘What does it mean to be Black in America today?’”
“When does Black history begin?” she pondered as she walked across the stage and looked down at the audience. “… Or maybe Black history began when civilization first began, back in Africa, millions of years ago,” Echols continued.
She told those gathered that the answers to her questions change as society evolves, adapts and learns new perspectives. “But the meaning behind blackness, however, has defined the experiences of Black people and those perceived to be Black in America for centuries,” the student said.
The First Emancipation Day Celebration
Student Nathané George appeared as white Quaker Jonathan Wilson, the director of the Freedmen’s Bureau school in Columbus. He wore khakis and a fitted, high-low gray blazer over a white button-up shirt and a black vest.
As the sun shone on the cemetery, George read from teacher Cyrus Green’s diary, which detailed the first anniversary of Emancipation Day in Columbus on May 8, 1867. Green had moved from Indiana to Mississippi to help organize and teach in the Freedmen’s school.
The Freedmen’s Bureau helped formerly enslaved people and poor white people negotiate contracts, buy property, vote and attend school. The organization established Columbus’ Union Academy in 1865 as one of the first schools to educate Black Americans during Reconstruction before white violence began again limiting Black education in the region.
“These men, and many others, helped build progressive schools,” George said from the Sandfield Cemetery stage.
Union Academy first started in a former Confederate hospital, Wayside Hospital. Green wrote in his diary about fears of people trying to burn down the school to stop the education of Black people. Those fears became a reality when Union Academy caught aflame twice, but one police report said it was an accident.
Arson was not the only threat Union Academy teachers and students faced.
“In April 1866, the city recorded a letter that threatened to hang the original teachers if Dr. Wilson didn’t shut down our school,” said MSMS student Everett “CJ” Mason as Robert Simon Mitchell, the son of the first Black principal at Union Academy. “Still, men in the local Black community protected us from those threats.”
While facing backlash from white people, the Union Academy teachers and students prepared for that first Eighth of May celebration.
“Today was a day long to be remembered by many of the African race here,” Green wrote in his diary on May 8, 1867. “It was their first celebration and commemoration of their freedom.”
Henry Edwin Baker Jr., the first Black Mississippian appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy, attended Union Academy.
“Union Academy is yet another symbol of our resilience, both as a people and as a community,” Mason said as Mitchell.
‘We Stand on the Shoulders of Those Who Came Before Us’
In September 1966, six Black women enrolled in the former Mississippi State College for Women, now the Mississippi University for Women. MUW was originally called the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls. The public university had been white-only for 82 years by 1966, two years after the Civil Rights of 1964 had passed to end public segregation.
Undergraduate students Laverne Greene, Diane Hardy and Barbara Turner, as well as graduate students Mary Flowers, Jacqueline Edwards and Eula Houser, faced threats and backlash for attending the school. Nevertheless, they paved the way for Black women to enroll at MUW.
“We like to say, in our community, that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Yarborough said.
Greene was present on May 8 at this year’s emancipation celebration at Sandfield Cemetery. Yarborough recognized Greene and said she and the other five women “challenged us to reflect on what we’re not doing right.”
“I want you to recognize that people like Laverne, and like the others who stood up in 1966,” Yarborough said, “who challenged us as a community, who challenged MSCW as a university, who challenged the state of Mississippi to accept that everybody here deserved an equal access to opportunity, and everybody among us deserves an equal chance at benefitting from being part of our society.”
71% Of Lowndes County Residents Enslaved
Walking on stage wearing black pants and a long black blazer over a collared white shirt and buttoned black vest, MSMS student Ashton Lollis portrayed Robert Gleed, the owner of the former Gleed’s Store and for whom Gleed’s Corner, Columbus’ Center for African American Entrepreneurship and Civic Engagement, was named.
Gleed was born into slavery in Virginia, later escaped and then was captured outside Columbus in 1863. He was sold back into slavery to John Miller in Mississippi but gained freedom in 1865.
The newly free man established himself as a businessman and leader and was the first Black man to serve on the Columbus City Council in 1868. Gleed also served the deputy revenue collector for the federal government and was elected as a state senator during Reconstruction. It was a brief time after the Civil War when Black Mississippians could run for and hold state and federal office for the first time—until white violence (called the First Mississippi Plan) brought an abrupt halt to Black office-holding by 1877 when Reconstruction ended. Most Black Mississippians would not be allowed to vote or hold office again in Mississippi until the 1960s.
“Gleed’s Corner was a shining example of Black excellence in Columbus,” Lollis said.
Gleed ran for sheriff in 1875, and a white mob invaded Gleed’s home, forcing him, his family and other Black people to retreat into the woods. The mob killed four Black men that night.
The next day was the election, and Black residents came out to vote in fear for their lives. Gleed lost the election and moved to Paris, Texas, due to the threats he faced. He attempted to return to Columbus but was forced to leave again.
Marching on stage and saluting the crowd, MSMS student Dylan Wiley portrayed Charles A. Williams, who was born in Columbus in 1942 and served as a private in Company B in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Union army regiment. Williams was one of 200,000 Black men who fought in the Union Army.
“When the Civil War began, almost 71% of Lowndes County residents was enslaved, and 55% of all Mississippians was enslaved,” Wiley said. “So when we celebrate emancipation, we celebrate victory.”
‘They Did Not See Us As Humans’
The 1870 and 1880 census shows that five African men and women were enslaved in Columbus after emancipation, one of whom was Jennie Johnston. Slave auctioneers captured Johnston from her tribe in Nigeria and shipped her across the Atlantic Ocean to Columbus, Miss.
“The transatlantic slave trade robbed us of more than just our freedom; it robbed us of our identity, our deep cultural and historical understanding of who we are,” MSMS student Echols said.
Student Hildana Tibebu walked on stage at the cemetery dressed in a blue and white floral hoop-skirt dress with a white collar peeking out of the neckline. She depicted Johnston’s story, sharing how dehumanized Johnston felt when she was stripped of her life in Africa.
“They did not see us as humans,” Tibebu said as Johnston. “While I return to Africa every night when I dream, preserving my culture here in a place like this has been far from easy, just as enslaved Africans all over the world have struggled to do the same.”
Columbus residents Marty Turner and Tiffany Turner have attended the Eighth of May celebration for several years. Marty Turner mentioned the importance of teaching everyone the true history of slavery in the U.S.
“The children being involved in it—that’s how we grow our community by not letting them forget about our history,” Marty Turner said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Union soldiers arrived to begin freeing enslaved people in Lowndes County a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, they began arriving over a month earlier on May 8, 1865. We apologize for the error.