An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

February 7, 2009

The Emancipation Oak

I have always admired Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana), but they became one of my favorite trees years ago while I was living outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Even though their botanical name indicates they are found here in Virginia, they only grow in a limited part, the southeastern corner of the state where they are at their northern limit. In Charleston and other parts of the South these trees reach a physical stature they will never attain here, and in the Lowcountry they are as integral to the cultural and natural landscape as sky, marsh and water. There the branches are home to Resurrection Ferns (Polypodium polypodioides), and the trees are draped with Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) giving the look of unkempt, but wise old sages.
There is one local specimen (pictured in this post) of Live Oak that while not the largest or oldest in the country, is perhaps the most historically important, and it could easily be argued is one of the nations most significant living trees of any species. I am speaking of the Emancipation Oak in Hampton, Virginia. It is located perilously close to Interstate 64 where millions of people pass it yearly (more often waiting in traffic), unaware of what is on the other side of the guardrail.
Prior to the Civil War it was forbidden in Virginia to teach slaves how to read and write, but that did not stop Mary Smith Peake a free woman of color from teaching in her home. In 1861 the fleeing Confederate forces burned the city of Hampton as they left, and most buildings did not survive, including Peake's home. That same year General Benjamin Butler of nearby Union-held Fort Monroe declared that slaves were now "contraband" of war and would not be returned to their former owners. As a result slaves flooded into the area for their first taste of freedom and set up encampments beyond the fort walls. With few buildings left in the city, Peak educated children and adults sheltered by this already large Live Oak. Under the shade of this same tree in 1863 newly freed African Americans heard the first reading in the South of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and hence the tree's name.
Shortly after the Civil War a school was founded on this site whose roots began with this tree and would later grow into Hampton University. It is one of the nation's oldest historically black universities, and among many noted former students is Booker T. Washington. The Emancipation Oak still thrives on campus and its canopy now covers about 100' of ground. The trunk itself is 9-10' from side to side and many of its long branches touch the ground, some of which are cabled for support. Though not as tall as it is wide, if you were to climb to the top, you would be able to see nearby Old Point Comfort the home of Fort Monroe, jutting into Hampton Roads harbor. Ironically it was at that site in 1619 that the first Africans were brought here, against their will, to what would become the United States. They were on board a Dutch ship and were traded with the English in exchange for food and safe harbor. Although I could find no reference as to how old the Emancipation Oak is, I want to think it was a mere acorn in 1619.

My impetus for writing this post came from several sources. First of all as said earlier, Live Oaks are one of my favorite trees; I wanted to see this storied specimen for myself; it is Black History Month in the United States; and I am still delightfully trying to wrap my brain around the two words "President Obama" and all of the events that brought us to this place in time. I also wanted to create a post and submit it to the Festival of Trees, a "monthly blog carnival devoted to all things arboreal" I discovered by visiting Local Ecologist who will be hosting February's event at the end of the month.


  1. You should be a shoe in to win the carnival. This is a very nice post about one magnificent tree and I one I dearly love too.

  2. Les, You know I drove past the Emancipation Oak on Thursday before the Inaugural and thought, what a place to be on Tuesday. It is such a grand tree...and such history!

  3. Very interesting Les. Living just an hour within its range I was aware of the 'Emancipation Oak' but didn't realize all the history behind it. Great post!

  4. This will be a great addition to the Festival of the Trees. Live Oaks are pretty amazing when their branches are allowed to touch the ground.

  5. Tina,
    Thank you for the vote of confidence and it is indeed magnificent.

    If you had stopped, you may have found a crowd.

    You should go, it is very easy to find.

    When those brances touch the ground it makes them look a little more animal and a little less plant.


  6. What a fabulous tree! I love the story of the Emancipation Oak. A wonderful tribute to Black History Month and our new president. We have a few old oaks on our property - I love their shape.

  7. I love this old tree! So much history that I didn't even know about it, thanks for sharing Les! A wonderful addition to the Festival of Trees!

  8. As you know already, I love these trees - and what a wonderful post, about a live oak from Virginia. Thanks for that.

  9. I love them. I have a favorite one I often take pictures of.

  10. The Live Oak is a magnificent tree! I have heard of the Emancipation oak but had no idea where it was located. A great post full of wonderful info. You get my vote for prize….

  11. Zowie! There are trees and there
    are Trees!

  12. What an amazing post! A history lesson as well as an appreciation for big old trees.
    I first encountered live oaks when I moved to California from Maryland many years ago. I've learned they don't like transplanting, but once established, they'll survive our hot dry climate, and even the occasional wildfire.
    A few years ago, I planted one in my yard from a 1 gallon pot. After a difficult period of settling in, it now looks like it's established. I like to think 400 years from now, that somebody will appreciate it as much as you love the Emancipation oak.

  13. What an amazing tree, history aside. Add in the history, and Wow! I think that might have been an even better location than D.C. for tuning into the Presidential Inauguration. Well...if not better, then a good runner-up for sure!

    Thanks for the Festival of Trees link-I have a post that I think I will enter!

  14. This is a wonderful essay. I am glad you submitted it to FOTT. Also, I like the connection to Black History Month and President Obama.

  15. Great Blog. Don't dismiss the physical stature of the Live Oak here in southeast Tidewater. As a member of a family whose been here for 150 years, Live Oaks have dominated our part of the world, offering uniform growth and sprawling character at the same time. Traveling through the southeast I have seen remarkable specimens, yes taller and foliage thinner because of Tillandsia usually, but while ours here are more compact they remain a formidable tree for our climate from the maritime dune woodlands to the maritime upland forests. Southeast Tidewater has seen many structural changes over the last 50 years that have not been kind the Live Oak and other old trees -often ridding an area of old stand live oaks for development -so we should replant heartily the species and remind our leaders -and get involved positively- of their merits.

  16. Forgot my website:

    John Prince

  17. I am a Hampton Senior ( HU C/O '11; Onyx 8) and I love this post. It just reinforced the love I have for my school. "Oh Hampton a Thought sent from Heaven above,to be our GREAT SOULS inspiration.."

  18. Is it known whether the Emancipation Oak was growing naturally in its location or whether it was transplanted? Do other live oaks grow in the immediate area or are they only found naturally much closer to the coast? How far inland do they occur naturally in SE Virginia?

    1. Bob, I have never heard the Emancipation Oak was transplanted, and yes they grow naturally in Hampton. This species occurs naturally throughout southeastern Virginia, mainly along the coast, but not exclusively so. The further west and north you grow, the species is rarer. I hope I have answered your questions.