Updated: May 16, 2022
By David Paterson
Thomaston is famous for the Emancipation Celebration held on or about May 29 each year. Organized by The Emancipation Committee of Upson County, Inc, this popular worthy local event has an unbroken 133 year history since the end of slavery in Upson County in 1865.
Why is Emancipation celebrated in Upson County on May 29?
Although some yet-unexplored document may someday offer a better explanation, it is reasonable to believe that on this date emancipation was officially announced to a large part of Upson's slaves.
General Wilson's famous raid through Upson County had happened little more than a month earlier (April 19-20) and the Civil War had ended shortly thereafter. For a few weeks many of the slave owners were confused about the status of their slaves, but occupying U.S. Army soon published orders that clearly enforced President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, proclaimed two and a half years earlier. In 1937, Victor Thurston (Probably using oral history sources) wrote that "several large planters brought their old slaves to town on May 29 and told them they had been set free." An eye witness, Sallie Blakely, born into slavery near Thomaston, and formerly owned by William A. Cobb, told an interviewer in 1937 that, "When freedom was declared, Mr. Cobb, called his slaves together and read the papers to them telling them that they were free and could leave his plantation if they so desired."
It makes sense that Upson's annual Emancipation Celebration would have been scheduled on a date that had the most significance to the people of our community Thurston credits William Guilford (former slave of the Spier and Birdsong families) with organizing the first annual celebration. Writing 70 years after the event, Thurston is amiss in some other facts, but circumstantial evidence supports this part of his story.
Most of what we know about the first organized celebration comes from William Guilford himself, in a memorial furnished to the Thomaston Times in 1891 by the (Colored Celebration Association as the committee was then called).
Guilford wrote that there were five speakers on May 29, 1966: Thomas S. Sharman, Peter W. Alexander, Jennings Thompson, James W. Greene, and (future Georgia governor) James M. Smith. According to the memorial,
According to the memorial, "the theme of their speeches was advising us to be a peaceful and honest people and to cultivate a disposition of love for and respect and forbearance toward one another, and also toward the white people."
Other eyewitness evidence includes a letter written from Thomaston by James W. Greene on May 30, 1866, in which he says, "[The] freedmen had a brilliant Celebration at this place on yesterday."
In the nineteenth century, where were the speeches given?
Our only evidence comes from contemporary newspapers. The earliest newspaper account, 1876, tells us that the speaking was held at Benjamin White's Grove (I believe this was near White's tannery and shoe factory, approximately the present location of the city works). The 1887 celebration was held near the (now demolished) Central Railroad depot, which was opposite White's tannery. In 1889 and 1890, the speaker's stand was erected in the grove beyond the Confederate cemetery. Around the turn of the century, Harp's grove was reported to be the location.
One detail of the early Emancipation celebration is notably absent today.
Apparently, Thomaston used to have a cannon - perhaps at the militia parade ground, perhaps on the square.
The Thomaston Herald (June 3, 1876) tells us that " a little after sunrise, the colored people of Thomaston fired one solitary salute in celebration of the anniversary of their emancipation". The old cannon was well charged and the fire applied. The shock was sudden and but few understood at once its purport. But soon the 29th of May was remembered as the celebration of their freedom and [the] shock was understood if not appreciated." This is the only known reference to the cannon.
Some elements of the Emancipation Celebration, however, have remained unchanged through the years;
the official program of singing and speeches, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, the parade through Thomaston, and the happy party atmosphere that attracts thousands of people from miles around.
In 1902 Thomaston Times remarked that this event in our community "apparently grows more popular as time passes" --- and indeed, 133 years after the slaves were freed in Thomaston, its popularity shows no signs of diminishing.