The Emancipation Oak is so named because it is the site of the first official reading in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863.The Emancipation Oak stands near the entrance of the Hampton University campus in Hampton, Virginia. The tree has weathered storms, survived winds, and sustained against fire for more than 150 years. Prior to the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, what was then a young oak tree provided a peaceful setting for “contraband,” the title given to newly freed blacks, to take classes. This right had been afforded due to the Union’s ability to maintain control of nearby Fort Monroe during the civil war and the declaration by General Benjamin F. Butler that freed blacks would be called contraband so they would not be returned to slavery.
Mrs. Mary Smith Peake began teaching classes in 1861 under the shade of the tree and soon the Butler Oak, as it was called at that time, became the location of the Butler School. Today, the Emancipation Oak stands as a tangible reminder of the steadfast determination of freed slaves and African Americans to be educated. With limbs that span more than 100 feet in diameter, the Emancipation Oak is designated as one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society.
The modernized replica of the Emancipation Oak displayed as part of the BHMVA permanent exhibition is the focal point of Gallery One. The structure is made of solid oak and reaches the full height of the gallery with branches that span proportionately in the room as wide as the tree from which it takes its name. The exhibition includes an interactive component which allows visitors to read stories of African Americans such as Elizabeth Keckly, Tom Molineaux, and others. The rendering was created when the museum was reopened at the Leigh Street Armory in 2016 and, in addition to paying homage to the living Emancipation Oak, it is a symbolic example of the BHMVA’s place of permanency in the community.