A Call for Thorough and Honest History

This has certainly been a year for the history books, and we’re not done yet. This year was also one for major anniversaries, including the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the 50th anniversary of Jonesborough’s Historic Zoning, and the 30th anniversary of the Jonesborough Genealogical Society. We still celebrated these anniversaries, in one way or another, but some events have been postponed until 2021.

This year is also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Elihu Embree’s newspaper, The Emancipator. We’ve been sharing monthly clippings from the paper’s seven editions. The last will be shared this week on October 31. That was the last edition Embree published. He died that December, so perhaps his health was too poor in November for him to keep publishing.

A museum exhibit is still planned for the end of the year inside the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum, but the largest part of the anniversary celebration has been postponed until 2021, and perhaps that’s fitting. I am currently researching to learn more about Embree’s enslaved woman Nancy and her five children. Embree manumitted them in his will which went into effect in January of 1821. It does seem appropriate, then, that we share Nancy’s story on the 200th anniversary of her emancipation.


During this anniversary and through my research, I’ve tried to reconcile Embree the idealist with Embree the human being who was an enslaver until the day he died. This dichotomy highlights the importance of a history education that is truthful, varied, and reveals all the facts, even when they’re hard to swallow. I had one of those moments earlier this year when the Washington County Archives shared a document with me.

In February 1806, Jefory, a black man who was an apprentice with Embree filed suit against him, claiming that Embree “ . . .Hath unlawfully and immoderately whipped (sic) beat and abused sd servant.” Another such suit was filed against Embree in May of that year. Embree confessed to the beatings. This was in 1806, perhaps before his spiritual awakening that led to his emancipation fervor? Still, the fact remains that Embree did not manumit all of his slaves until his death. How long would Nancy and her children have remained enslaved if Embree had not passed in 1820? We can only wonder.

A study of history presents several reasons why Embree may have continued to enslave Nancy and her family. It was intentionally expensive to manumit enslaved people at the time, and Embree may not have had the funds. Also, you couldn’t manumit the children and not the parent, and there were five children. Embree tried to explain his reasons in his paper, but he was never able to judge himself the same way he judged other enslavers.

History is messy. It’s not easy, but we have to know the whole story, view the whole picture, and that comes with seeing our idealists, our movers and shakers for who they were: human beings. Does the fact that Embree was an enslaver discount the work he did for emancipation? No. But it paints him in a broader context. Knowing this about him encourages us to search for more information on Nancy, on her children Frames, Abegil, Sophea, Mount, and John. It also encourages us to learn more about Jefory and his role in Washington County in 1806. When we truly engage with history, we have far more questions than answers, and we’re always uncovering more stones with stories to be told underneath.