THOMASTON, Ga. — The largest emancipation celebration happens in Georgia, and it's rooted in how American history developed in the South.
May 29, 1865, in a place called Thomaston, enslaved people heard they were freed. Now thousands of Black people gather every year in Upson County and celebrate what they call Emancipation Day.
History textbooks often report civil war officially ended on April 9, 1865. But the Confederate army didn’t surrender quietly or quickly.
"We know, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation didn't --- it didn't free anyone really immediately," Dr. Daniel Black, a historian and professor at Clark Atlanta University, said. "And we know most folks didn't even hear about it."
Author and historian James McGill has written extensively about the Black experience in Upson County – where enslaved people, he said, learned nearly two months later – they were finally free.
“They destroyed all the food so they wouldn’t have anything to eat. They destroyed the mills so they wouldn’t have any jobs,” McGill said. “On May 29, they called all the enslaved peoples to the courthouse square and told them they couldn’t feed them. That’s when they turned them loose.”
The celebration didn't come immediately, according to the historian.
“Slaves, they didn’t know how to act or respond, because they were so used to their slave masters helping them," he said.
McGill said a man named William Gifford created an Emancipation Day celebration at the old train station in Thomaston in 1866. Each year since it has grown to include thousands from around the South and has been coined as the oldest celebration of its kind.
The historian said the goal is to grow – educate more people, especially younger generations – and keep their history alive.
“The old saying goes, ‘if it wasn’t recorded, it didn’t happen.’ But now the Lord has blessed us with the information, and we should not let our history die,” McGill said.