With limbs sprawling over a hundred feet in diameter, the Emancipation Oak is designated as one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society.
The peaceful shade of the young oak served as the first classroom for newly freed men and women, eager for an education during the Civil War. Mrs. Mary Peake, daughter of a freed colored woman and a Frenchman, conducted the first lessons taught under the oak located on Hampton University’s modern campus.
Classes continued with the Butler School, which was constructed in 1863 next to the oak. One day in 1863, the members of the Virginia Peninsula’s black community gathered to hear a prayer answered. The Emancipation Oak was the site of the first Southern reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an act which accelerated the demand for African-American education.
The catalyst for these great events was Union General Benjamin F. Butler’s “contraband of war” decision at Fort Monroe in 1861. The decision changed the fates of many African-American slaves, enabling hundreds to reach freedom behind Union lines. Although previously forbidden an education by Virginia law, the rising number of “contrabands” camped in the area prompted the establishment of schools for those freedmen who exhibited “a great thirst for knowledge”.
The Emancipation Oak position near the entrance of the Hampton University campus is a lasting symbol of the university’s rich heritage and perseverance.