Emancipation Day Celebrates a Lasting Legacy

Loudoun County’s Emancipation Day ceremony was held Saturday on the grounds of Carver School, marking a return to the event’s original open-air format.

Sylvia Smith, a 1961 graduate of western Loudoun’s Black elementary school, said the program had been held inside the school building since 1967, when the Loudoun County Emancipation Association sold the nearby land that hosted the program since 1910.

Participants agreed it was important to continue the efforts of past generations to build better lives for their families.

“The emancipation is not just a moment in history, but rather a moment to be lead and supported by generations over many decades that honor our past and preserve our African culture and heritage. There is no higher cause than honoring the African American struggle and their ancestors,” Carver Alumni Association Walter Owens said.

“Our ancestors would be proud of the legacy which they left to us. It is a legacy I hope to leave to my children, grandchildren, and future generations,” Smith said.

Among the speakers was Edward W. Gant, retired U.S. Navy veteran who wore the uniform of a soldier in the U.S. Colored Troops. He said there were two important implications of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that aren’t well known.

First, he said, was that it removed the longstanding prohibition on Black men joining miliary service. “There had been a law since 1792 that you had to be an abled bodied white man to serve in the army,” he said. 

Some 200,000 men joined the U.S. Colored Troops.

“That influenced the end of the war. By 1865, as the war was winding down, there were more Black soldiers in the Union army than soldiers in the Confederate army in total,” he said.

Secondly, the decision by freed civilians to head north or find safety in contraband camps at U.S. Army bases robbed the south of its workforce, also hastening the war’s end.

“Once the word was passed that there was an Emancipation Proclamation, people voted with their feet and they left. They left the plantation when they could,” Gant said.

Keynote speaker author and historian Kevin Grigsby also reflected on the role of Black soldiers and his research of local men who were sent to fight, and often to die, on battlefields in the deep south.

He said they preferred to die as free men than to live as slaves and fought to provide more opportunities for those who would follow.

“On this day, I think about those soldiers. When they closed their eyes for the last time and when they took their last breath on a Mississippi or a Louisiana battlefield, this is what I believed they might have dreamed of—this type of day, this type of occasion,” Grigsby said.

He also reflected on the importance his ancestors and the Black community placed on one of those opportunities—education.

He recalled the efforts his grandfather made to get from Upperville to attend classes at Carver and later at Douglass School in Leesburg, walking long distances to catch a bus ride.

“I tell that story because that is someone who handed the baton,” said Grigsby, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “There is someone who walked across the field to get to a bus stop because he wanted to his education. … These are folks who were denied. They understood the importance of education.” 

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