Country's first abolitionist publication from Jonesborough, Tennessee

The first issue of The Emancipator

Grade school history classes taught of slavery, the Civil War and the North and South’s general stance during that time period, but rewind several decades from the Civil War to the 1820s, where lines may not have been so deeply drawn as most would think.

The pre-Confederate South— Jonesborough, Tennessee, to be exact— introduced the United States to its first publication solely dedicated to the abolitionist movement in 1820. Elihu Embree published The Emancipator from April 1820 until his death due to bilious fever and nervous collapse in October that year.

Anne G’Fellers-Mason, the Heritage Alliance’s special projects coordinator, said the publication didn’t stir much of an uproar within Washington County. Rather, Tennessee state governors gave Embree a harder time because they generally held many slaves to sustain large plantations in Middle Tennessee. 

Embree, however, continued to mail the publications to several state governors. The paper began with six subscribers and eventually gained 2,000, reaching out-of-state readers.

“It really wasn’t a huge deal locally,” G’Fellers-Mason said. “There were a large number of free blacks in Washington County who were coexisting.

“He got a lot more slack from several state governors because they were slaveholders. Now, if he’d published that more around the 1860s, it would’ve been a bigger deal because so much had changed locally.”

There’s a catch to this: Embree was a slaveholder, too. Many question how he promoted anti-slavery creeds while practicing what he presumably opposed.

“As far as we know, he was a slaveholder until the day he died,” G’Fellers-Mason said. “He was a man of his time although he was diametrically opposed to those views.

“He published in his papers that he wasn’t completely living up to his values, and he was someone wrestling with two completely opposed ideologies.

“You had a lot of people who knew the system was wrong but couldn’t fathom how to find something to take its place.”

Embree published seven editions of the monthly publication until he died in October 1820. Shortly after his death, a publisher in Maryland bought the publication and changed its name to The Genius of Universal Emancipation, which ran until 1839.

His slaves were freed upon his death.

“He provided an education for them and got them a place to live after his death,” said G’Fellers-Mason. “He freed them in his will.”


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