Having lived most of my life in southwestern Virginia, I have a big place in my heart for this area of the United States. Being one of the first areas settled by Europeans coming into the “new world”, Virginia has a storied past and a rich history. It’s the place where George Washington’s Continental Army and their French allies defeated the British at Yorktown. Virginia is the birthplace of notable historic figures such as Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Virginia is also a place where countless people were bought and sold as slaves. The topic of slavery and the meaning held within what we accept as living symbols of struggle, the beauty of life, faith and freedom are the topics of this article.
Slaves in the early American colonies and the Southern states were property of their owners. They could be bought, sold and treated pretty much however an owner chose. During the early years of the United States it was commonly against the law to educate slaves. Slaves owned nothing, they were not entitled to have control over their children or family and they had no belongings that were considered their own. Since congregating in large numbers and having places to be together was often a challenge, slaves often used large trees as meeting spots and places of rest and reflection. This article tells the story of three such trees.
The Zion Poplars
Seven united poplar trees are said to have grown out of the decaying trunk of an old dead tree. This spot in Gloucester, Virginia is told to be the spot where in 1866, just a year after the Civil War ended, the original founders of present day Zion Poplars Baptist Church first met to worship. The church was founded in 1886 but oral history tells us that this stand of poplar trees had served as the meeting place for these people for many years prior to its founding. Four of the seven trees are still alive to this day.
7000 T.C. Walker Road
Located near the entrance of the campus of Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, the Emancipation Oak is said to be the place where in 1861, newly freed men and women who had “a great thirst for knowledge” learned from Mrs. Mary Smith Peake the daughter of a freed woman and a Frenchman. This great tree served as their first classroom where they were exposed, for the first time, to a formal educational process behind the protective lines of the Union Army under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler.
A number of sources have written that the Emancipation Oak was named one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society although I have not been able to locate documentation from the National Geographic Society to support this. Regardless, The Emancipation Oak was the first place where, in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was read openly to men and women of color in the American South. Also in 1863 a formal schoolhouse called The Butler School was erected nearby.
Sallie’s Crying Tree
Having lived in Marion, Virginia for many years, and still considering this beautiful town my home, I know well the story of Sallie’s Crying Tree also known as The Crying Tree. Located directly behind the Marion Fire Department building, this is a place near and dear to the hearts of many who call Marion home. I am writing this article now to recognize the exceptional life and contributions of Evelyn Thompson Lawrence, a lifelong Marion, Virginia native and educator of more than 40 years. In 1965 when Smyth County public schools integrated, Evelyn was the first educator of color to teach in the school system. She worshiped in The Mount Pleasant Methodist congregation. Evelyn Thompson Lawrence died on August 28, 2015. Born on November 15, 1915, she was 99 years of age. Evelyn is so well known, so inspirational and so beloved that a student at East Tennessee University wrote a doctoral dissertation on Evelyn’s life.
According to Evelyn Thompson Lawrence’s account:
Taken from her mother and father, Sarah “Sallie” Adams was only 5 years old when she was sold as a slave outside of the Smyth County Courthouse just a few blocks from where The Crying Tree stands. Bought by a Mr. Thomas Thurman as a body servant to tend to his sickly wife, Sallie’s responsibilities were to watch over and tend to the ill woman and to get help when it was needed.
Sallie Adams never saw her mother or father again. When it was possible, Sallie would slip into a nearby yard where she would sit and reflect, think and often cry next to a white oak tree. The tree became her comfort, her friend and her confidant. Being a young girl, Sallie could often be seen hugging the tree and telling it all of her burdens and sorrows.
That big old white oak tree ultimately became known as “The Crying Tree.”
Sallie’s story continued well beyond the Crying Tree.
When the Civil War ended and slaves were freed, Sallie ended up marrying two times and had a total of 10 children. She worked to send two of her daughters to college, a tremendous achievement by any measure. Sallie’s descendants have lived lives that would make Sallie proud as they are motivated by her motto, “Always be your best, always do your best, and always give your best.” This is the legacy of Sarah “Sallie” Adams and the tree we all know as The Crying Tree.
I hope you have enjoyed learning a little bit about some of the interesting, inspirational and historical stories surrounding a number of revered trees in the state of Virginia. Being in a modern society, it may seem strange to hold a simple tree in such esteem, but aside from the immense value of the living lives that are these trees, it’s the story of the people that these trees represent that hold the greatest meaning. May they live forever.
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