On Wednesday, May 8, students from across Mississippi will turn an historically African-American cemetery in Columbus into a dramatic setting for a musical lesson in local history.
Students from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science will present the fourth Eighth of May Emancipation Day History Program in historic Sandfield Cemetery at the corner of College Street and 25th Street South. The students will perform at 5:30 p.m. and at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, and the event is open to the public.
The program will feature dramatic vignettes relating historic events and figures from the 19th through mid-20th century Columbus African-American community.
Events and figures portrayed will include Rev. Jesse F. Boulden, a state representative who also played an instrumental role founding Missionary Union Baptist Church. Also, students will portray Union Academy teacher Anna Gleed, whose father, state senator Robert Gleed, spoke at the first Eighth of May celebration in 1866. Additionally, students will portray Dr. E.J. Stringer, a local dentist who led the state NAACP as well as the early efforts to integrate Columbus’ schools. Students will also give voice to Tony, the enslaved woman who became the catalyst for the Women’s Property Act of the 1830s.
The dramatic pieces will be interspersed with musical performances by the student-directed MSMS Voices in Harmony Choir and will culminate with a community singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“The program will provide a lot of information about our history that many of us don’t know,” said Taylor McClelland, an MSMS senior from Gulfport and vice-president of VIH. “Even though I’m not from Columbus, this is still part of my history.”
The Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration had its beginnings with the spontaneous celebrations that accompanied the arrival — on May 8, 1865 — of Federal troops in Columbus, effectively ending slavery in this area. One year after that date, African-Americans of Columbus celebrated their freedom with their first Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration.
Student members of Voices in Harmony at MSMS recently learned that the festivities of the first Eighth of May were recorded, in part, in the journal of Cyrus Green, a Quaker from Indiana who came to teach in the Freedmen’s Bureau school in Columbus during the spring and summer of 1866. They hope to share the information they have learned with the local community through their performance.
Damonta Morgan, an MSMS senior from Clarksdale, and president of VIH added, “We hope people from the area will come enjoy our performance while learning a little more local history. It’s going to be entertaining as well as educational!”
The first Eighth of May celebration took place on a Tuesday amidst news of a Memphis, Tenn., riot against Freedmen and less than two weeks after local teachers received a letter threatening hangings if they continued to educate local blacks.
However, a charged racial atmosphere and threats of violence did not deter local African-Americans from celebrating the first anniversary of their Emancipation. Cyrus Green recorded that “today was a day long to be remembered by many of the African race here. It was their first celebration in commemoration of their freedom — one year ago this morning the Federal troops arrived in this place and proclaimed the slaves free.”
Preachers and laymen, black and white, including Robert Gleed, who would become Lowndes County’s first African-American state senator, spoke eloquently and the celebration lasted until after nightfall. Green reported that the revelers dined at a table “covered not only with the whitest linen but an enigmatic profusion of cakes, meats, candies and blended tastefully with flowers, leaves and every conceivable beauty culled from nature’s great laboratory.”
The Eighth of May Emancipation Day Celebration continued throughout Lowndes County and the surrounding area through the remainder of the 19th and most of the 20th century.
Jim Cunningham, VIH choir director and an MSMS senior from Columbus, said, “I hope people will bring their entire families to the program. It should be a memorable event for everyone.”
For more information on Wednesday’s program, contact Chuck Yarborough at MSMS, 662-329-7360 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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