Many things have come to symbolize freedom from the bald eagle to many more modern things like cars. Trees are no different and in Hampton, Virginia there is one such tree and it is such a symbol of freedom that an entire university was built around it. The Emancipation Oak is a southern live oak tree (quercus virginiana). It is a huge tree, 98 feet in diameter and has been designated as one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society.
When the Civil War began nearby Fort Monroe remained in Union hands. The commander of Union forces in the area, Benjamin Butler was informed that three escaped slaves had rowed their way across Hampton Roads seeking freedom and had entered his lines. Butler was still bound by the laws of the land, the Fugitive Slave Act, which required him to return all escaped slaves but ever the lawyer and politician he found a way around it. Realizing that the Confederates were using the three runaways to build fortifications he deemed the escapees “contraband of war” and decided he could keep them the same way he could keep a captured shovel or pick. He also reasoned that since Virginia had declared its secession that U.S. law no longer applied to the the escapees and their masters.
When President Lincoln heard this he disapproved of the reasoning. Virginia was after all not an independent nation or part of another nation, Virginia was still a part of the United States. Despite this rebuke Butler was not forced to return the slaves and instead put the escaped slaves to work but did not pay them. Fortunately change was coming as those escapees were not truly escaping slavery. In August 1861 policy was set with the Confiscation Act of 1861 which allowed Union authorities to keep any slave that escaped into their lines. The next month a directive from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles offered employment to escaped slaves for $10 a month with the army soon following suit. The following March returning an escaped slave to Confederate authorities was strictly prohibited. Slavery was being slowly dismantled.
Abraham Lincoln wanted to end slavery and realized that he could use his war powers as president to do just that, at least for slaves in enemy held territory. On January 1, 1863 he released his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate-held territory but retained slavery in Union held territory. All that he needed to completely abolish slavery was victory on the battlefield. What would become of the millions who would suddenly become free was another matter.
Following a slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia law had prohibited the education of slaves. With Virginia in rebellion but the Hampton Roads area in Union hands the American Missionary Association asked Mary Smith Peake to start a school to teach newly-freed children and she began her classes under a large oak tree. Many newly-freed adults were also attracted and soon the classes were too large and forced a move to a nearby cottage. That same tree gained its name in early 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was ready publicly for the first time in the South. The war was now about more than just the preservation of the Union.
Following the war the American Missionary Association founded a land grant school, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute near the oak tree. One of its early students was Booker T. Washington, who used it as a model for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which he would found in 1881. Tuskegee was instrumental in founding hundreds of school that gave and still give an education to African-American students to this day. Hampton gained university status in 1984 and became Hampton University and the Emancipation Oak still stands on its campus to this day.
There is a possibility that it may not be standing much longer as it is threatened. The Commonwealth wants to expand Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bay Bridge and Tunnel. In November 2016 they informed Hampton University that VDOT may need to acquire some of the school’s land and some of that land includes the Emancipation Oak. Hampton University has vowed to not give an inch of its land and take this to the Supreme Court if necessary.