Following community backlash over a highway expansion plan that would jeopardize the historic Emancipation Oak tree on the campus of Hampton University, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne announced Nov. 17 that the Virginia Department of Transportation would not continue with those plans.
The Emancipation Oak, is culturally significant to the African American community because it is the place many slaves first learned they were emancipated in 1863.
After learning that the highway expansion could jeopardize the air quality surrounding the historic tree, Hampton University officials fought back, speaking out with statements and protests.
“Emancipation Oak was named one of the Ten Great Trees of the World, and that was by the National Geographic Society,” Hampton University President William Harvey said at a press conference. “As stewards of this land, Hampton University will fight to protect it into perpetuity.”
Emancipation Oak is where the first southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation was held. According to Hampton University’s website, the area around it also served as one of the first classrooms for newly freed slaves. The Strawberry Banks area, which would have been affected by the highway expansion as well, also has significant historical significance to both the Native American and African American community.
A study conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation claimed that the highway expansion would actually improve the air quality in the area.
The tree is not on the National Register of Historic Places. However, it was not eligible for inclusion when that program was initiated.
“When the program was started trees were not nominated, but in recent years the meaning of ‘places’ has included traditional cultural places, which could include mountains or landscapes important to a people’s culture,” Rustin Quade, an archivist at the National Register told the AFRO in an e-mail.
According to Joe Waldo, an attorney representing Hampton University, the school was prepared to go to the Supreme Court in order to protect the landmark.
“Our plan from the very beginning was to tell the Virginia Department of Transportation that the constitution of Virginia protects this historic site,” Waldo told the AFRO. At a press conference he added that, “When you speak out for what is right, good people listen.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said she is now working with Harvey to protect the tree against the highway expansion project.
“We’re looking at another tunnel,” Layne told the AFRO. “Maybe the construction costs a little more, but it impacts the community a little less.”
Layne said the department hopes to expand I-64 within the state’s current right of way, using the median to expand from four lanes to six. Layne also said in the press conference that he is working to further protect Hampton University’s land.
“Why would you build a road or any transportation project if it’s not going to improve someone’s life?” Layne told AFRO. “I’d rather have a construction problem then a political problem or a community problem.”
Over 250 students attended a press conference on Nov. 18, protesting the expansion with signs.
“I think people came out because they were genuinely worried that the representation of us as a community was devalued by the state,” Hampton student Bria Andrews told the AFRO. “If they were to try to actually cut it down, that would have showed us that the state or government officials don’t care about us or our legacy.”
In the press conference, Harvey said that in addition to protecting Emancipation Oak, he also wants to invest in the Strawberry Banks area to provide scholarships for African American and Native American students.
“I like to teach by example,” he said. “The example here is always stand up for what you think is best, no matter where the chips fall.”