JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Jonesborough is home to the first publication dedicated to the abolitionist movement named “The Emancipator.” It called for the freeing of slaves decades before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
The Emancipator was founded and published in Jonesborough by Quaker Elihu Embree. He was a former slave owner who experienced a transformative awakening and became an abolitionist. He secured freedom for all his enslaved individuals except for one of his slaves and her family.
“The issue was that before Embree had his reawakening, he was taking out loans to fund one of his other businesses,” said Anne Mason, historian and executive director of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee. “And unfortunately, he used Nancy and her children as collateral in those loans. And he hadn’t been able to pay that loan off yet.”
The Emancipator was published monthly for seven months in 1820 before Embree died in December of that year.
“He did international, national, state and local news,” said Mason. “So, it was pretty big and he’s getting all the stories himself. He’s financing this himself. He’s the editor.”
The last publication was in October of 1820. Mason believes it’s because she thinks Embree was too sick to continue.
“But at the time of his death, it had 2000 subscribers and it’s getting readership in Boston and Philadelphia and other very pro-abolitionist places like that,” said Mason.
Mason said there was a good amount of local readers as well who ended up freeing their slaves.
“There are a lot of people who felt like he [Embree] did and in every edition he’s like, ‘Well, the so-and-so in Washington County manumitted many of their enslaved people,’ ” said Mason.
The Emancipator is known to be the first publication in the United States dedicated exclusively to the abolitionist movement. A historical marker on Main Street in downtown Jonesborough shows the site where the paper was printed.
Local resident, Walter Buford said that The Emancipator is important to the abolitionist movement because it helped slaves have representation.
“It had the power to shine light on what was really happening with the slaves in the South,” said Buford. “Whereas the slaves didn’t have much opportunity to speak out for themselves or have any means of protecting themselves or by law.”
Buford believes the writings helped advance the abolitionist movement.
“It was a combination of the different white people who saw a need for a change to actually aid us in the movement because we couldn’t have not done it by ourselves,” said Buford.
Embree wrote in his will, that his slave Nancy and her children be freed.
“The will asks that his brother pay off the loan, that they be free, that they have a space to live for the rest of their life, and that his brother continue to educate the children, her children, like he Elihu had been educating them,” said Mason.
Mason said what exactly happened to Nancy and her children after Embree’s death is unknown.
Mason wrote a play about what may have happened titled “Nancy.” The play will be performed on Saturday, June 24 at 2:00 p.m. at the Embree House Historic Farm. You can click here to find more information on the play and to purchase tickets.
Digital copies of The Emancipator can be found on The University of Tennessee Knoxville’s digital collection’s website.
The Emancipator lives on as a digital newspaper published by the Boston Globe. It returned in 2022 and focuses on explaining and identifying solutions to structural racism.