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On September 17, 1861, Mrs. Mary Smith Peake taught the first classes to African American children on the grounds of what is now Hampton University at Hampton Roads in Virginia under the shade of the Emancipation Oak.

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The Emancipation Oak in December 2007

Emancipation Oak is a historic tree located on the campus of Hampton University in what is now the City of Hampton, Virginia. (Elizabeth City County and the Town of Phoebus voted to consolidate with the City of Hampton in 1952). The large sprawling oak is 98 feet (30 m) in diameter, with branches which extend upward as well as laterally. It is designated one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society and is part of the National Historic Landmark district of Hampton University. The tree is a Live Oak (Quercus virgiana).


During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), nearby Fort Monroe remained in Union hands, and became a place of refuge for escaped African American slaves seeking asylum. Prior to the Civil War, and following the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831, Virginia law had been changed to prohibit the education of slaves. Nevertheless, in 1861, Mrs. Mary Smith Peake (1823 to 1862) taught children of former slaves under the tree, which was 3 miles outside of the protective safety of Fort Monroe, and held night classes for adults. In 1863, the Virginia Peninsula's black community gathered under this tree to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

After the conclusion of hostilities, also at this location, a school was founded in 1868 by General Samuel C. Armstrong as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a land grant school. From 1872 to 1875, one of its many students was the young son of a former slave by the name of Booker T. Washington, who became a famous educator and later founded Tuskegee Institute and dozens of schools for African-American children across the south.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute became Hampton Institute in 1930 and gained University status in 1984, becoming Hampton University. It is one of Virginia's major institutions of higher education. There, in the 21st century, the venerable Emancipation Oak still stands to provide both shelter and inspiration to the school's students and staff.