Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

Columns

July 18, 2013

Emancipation Oak isn't just a tree, it's where history happened

On the campus of Hampton University is a massive tree, many of its limbs propped up and secured by wires.

As the cars on Interstate 64 whiz by toward the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and Norfolk, this little patch of nature is unprepossessing, just a big old tree nearly 100 feet in diameter.

Your opinion might change, however, once you understand that early during the Civil War, the Union had secured the grounds and attracted thousands of slaves to gather behind their shield of blue. Under that broad tree, many children and adults participated in their very first schooling.

Then, one day in 1863, the “contraband” Negroes under Union protection were invited to assemble at the tree. There, in its shade, they heard someone read aloud what has come to be known as the Emancipation Proclamation.

You can imagine the iconic status of that tree at the historically-black university associated with both education and political liberation. You can actually feel something in the presence of that oak. Here, almost exactly 150 years ago, lifelong slaves stood trying to comprehend what it meant.

In our Newtonian space, going heedless here and there in search of experiences and personal advancement, we do not even realize the weight of a place. Oh, sometimes we sense it at a gravesite, for example, or standing next to some shrine. We undoubtedly understand when we return to our old neighborhood and sit in the car gazing wordlessly at our childhood home.

Well, the earth is replete with sacred space, where people at one time experienced extraordinary moments, both jubilant and terrifying. Historians and preservationists struggle to convince the rest of us that these places are worth cherishing. Needless to say, the congested public in Virginia is pressuring the commonwealth to widen that interstate and raze Emancipation Oak.

Won’t happen. Yet what did we read earlier about developers in Peru who snuck in over the weekend and destroyed a 4,000 year old pyramid? Much as I celebrate the human good of private property and enterprise, such calloused ruination breaks my heart. Friends of capitalism simply have to allow for our shared legacy, the sites of our heritage.

Anyone who thinks that Emancipation Oak is just a tree really doesn’t understand the human project at all. Fly down to Norfolk, rent a car, drive over to Hampton, find that venerable spot, reflect on what happened there, and literally feel a chill go down your spine. Or weep.

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