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Slimantics: 8 O'May stirs meditations on the nature of emancipation

 

Slim Smith

 

Until recently, the only significant thing for me about May 8 was that it is my brother's birthday. 

 

Long-time Columbus residents will forgive my ignorance on this topic, I am sure. Since yesterday was my two-year anniversary at The Dispatch, I am still learning about the city's rich history. 

 

May 8 , 1865, I have learned, was the day federal forces arrived in Columbus announcing the emancipation of the slave population. The story goes that upon hearing that news, a group of women for whom emancipation meant the loss of their household "help" gathered A St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where they dined on chicken salad and, most likely, discussed how their lives might be altered by the end of slavery.  

 

The chicken salad luncheon has turned out to be an annual observance at the church. Today marks the 127th renewal of the luncheon. The event is known as "8 O'May." 

 

Of course, there was a group of people for whom emancipation had a far greater impact: The black community. There is apparently no record of how the slave population reacted to the news of their anticipation on May 8, 1865, although it's pretty easy to guess the prevailing mood. 

 

It seems odd to me that, until relatively recently, the most prominent observation of the historic event focused on the white residents' reaction. It's rather like considering the sinking of the Titanic from the point of view of the iceberg.  

 

In the years immediately following what the black community called "Emancipation Day," black residents celebrated with barbecues and parades, which often included the Union Band, then composed of former slaves. That tradition died out, however, and it wasn't until 15 years ago that an organized effort to present the black community's point of view re-emerged.  

 

So today, in addition to the St. Paul's luncheon -- now simply called the May Luncheon -- there will be a ceremony Sandfield Cemetery (5:30 p.m.) to honor the day the black residents of Columbus learned they were free. Mississippi School for Math and Science history class members will participate in the ceremony much as they do during their annual "Tales From the Crypt" performances during Pilgrimage. 

 

The students can tell the stories of the people buried there, some of whom knew life as a slave. But neither they nor anyone else living today, can describe with any degree of confidence the emotions felt by the black population on this day 149 years ago.  

 

But I do think I have a frame of reference that gives me more insight on this than most folks. 

 

The old saying that you don't know the value of a thing until you have lost it applies in my case. 

 

My personal Emancipation Day was July 2, 2007, the day I walked out of Arizona's Florence West Prison.  

 

Like most prisoners, I had kept a calendar, marking each day as the end of my sentence approached. As the day of my release grew nearer, I began to wonder how it would feel to step out from behind that big iron gate, to breathe free air, to go where I wanted to go when I wanted to go, to make my own choices about what to wear, what to eat, how to spend my time. I was almost giddy at the thought of being free. I was certain it would be the happiest day of my life. 

 

Oddly, when the day arrived, I found my emotions strangely muted. Oh, I was happy to be outside those prison gates, but I was equally mindful of the challenges that awaited my life as an middle-aged ex-con. I was neither ecstatic over my freedom nor crushed by the challenges that awaited me. I was sort of in the middle, somewhere, almost like being sedated or being in a daze. It seemed like I was always walking right up to the place where either laughter or tears prevail and stopping short. I could neither laugh nor cry, though I often wanted to do both. 

 

I have a theory that this subdued state of mind is the brain's method of maintaining emotional equilibrium just as the body maintains temperature. We know the body is endangered when it is too hot or too cold. Likewise, the spirit of a man cannot long endure either emotional extreme.  

 

What was it like to be a black resident of Columbus on May 8, 1865, the day freedom came and, with it, a new world full of uncertainties? 

 

The emotions may not have matched the magnitude of the occasion. 

 

That's just a guess, of course. 

 

But it is an educated guess.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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