Ann Dorbin - October 2009
Uncle Nace’s Day
Commemorating Maryland Emancipation Day Since 1867
Ann E. Dorbin
Since 1867, the small town of Trappe (population 1,146), located in Talbot County midway between Easton and Cambridge, has hosted Nace’s Day, the longest continuously running celebration on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The event was originated by Nathaniel Hopkins (~1831-1900), affectionately known as “Uncle Nace.”
A former slave, Civil War veteran, and civic and religious leader, Hopkins returned to Talbot County after serving in the Union army in the Civil War, to work for the betterment of the newly freed black population in the southern part of the county. Nace’s Day is a unique commemoration of Maryland Emancipation Day, November 1, 1864, when Maryland adopted a new state constitution that abolished slavery and made it the first slave state to voluntarily free its slaves by popular vote (Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had only freed slaves in states of rebellion, of which Maryland was not one).
For 142 years, the Hopkins family and the Trappe community have kept the observance alive. In his book Trappe: The Story of an Old Fashioned Town, Dickson Preston writes that “. . . in Trappe, alone of all places on the southern-oriented Eastern Shore, the Negro community was given the freedom of the town each year to celebrate the end of slavery. That didn’t happen anywhere else in Maryland. It didn’t happen many places in all of America. The fact that it did happen in Trappe . . . is something of which blacks and whites alike can be proud.”
For many years, the celebration continued to be held on November 1 (since amended to the second Saturday in October). It was a holiday when schools closed and people spent the day in celebration and reflection. For the first 30 years, Uncle Nace himself led the parade, resplendent in full Union army uniform – complete with gold epaulets, a silk sash around his waist, and gleaming sword (the same sword still carried by his descendents in the parade today) – followed by bands, singing groups, horseback riders, children and decorated wagons and carts. Large numbers of spectators attended, and there were horse races, games, feasting, and dances in the evening. At a grandstand erected near the church, orators from as far away as Baltimore delivered speeches, often with a political bent because of the event’s proximity to Election Day. Regardless of any political undertones, the celebration is generally recalled as a semi-religious time, where those who had known slavery expressed gratitude for freedom.
Nace Hopkins, a large man with strong features and piercing eyes, was far more than just a colorful local character who liked to dress up and lead parades. Hopkins was known and respected as being industrious, a good churchman and an advocate for children and the book-learning he had been denied under slavery. (The recently established Nace Hopkins Scholarship Fund carries on this advocacy by helping local youth seek higher education). In October 1871, Hopkins was one of a group of black residents who met to incorporate their former “African church,” which eventually became Scotts United Methodist Church. He was also instrumental in building Trappe’s first so-called “colored schoolhouse” on a site near the church.
Children revered his name and letters still prized by his descendants testify to the respect both whites and blacks had for him. Nace Hopkins died February 22, 1900 and was buried in the Old Paradise Cemetery at what is now the corner of U.S. Route 50 and Barber Road. After his death, others carried on for him, but the celebration continued to be called “Uncle Nace’s Day.”
Despite lack of funds, waning interest and racial tensions that have threatened its demise, the celebration has withstood the test of time. In 1976, when the Town of Trappe planned its Bicentennial Celebration, one of the chosen goals of the event committee was to help raise funds to revitalize Nace’s Day. “We thought it was important to recognize and revive the celebration,” says Hilda Jane Groves, who chaired the committee. “The community was really behind it: the town commissioners, fire department, school and citizens wanted to keep it alive.”
Funds raised by the Bicentennial Committee helped purchase a new headstone for Nathaniel Hopkins’ gravesite. Today, Hopkins’ great-great-grandson, Dale Brown, leads a visit to the gravesite as part of the Nace’s Day celebration. Brown is president of the Eastern Shore Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, one of the centerpieces of the modern parades.
This year, besides gleaming motorcycles, dozens of entrants will parade down Main Street to Scotts United Methodist Church. A few participants always dress up to reenact the Emancipation. Other spectacles may include color guards, some mounted on horseback, drum corps from Philadelphia, lively “stepper” dancers, military and school bands, beauty queens and, yes, politicians. At the end of the parade route, bands crescendo and performers strut in front of the judges’ stand, which is set up at the site of the church that Nace Hopkins helped established almost a century and a half ago.
Women and men from the congregation (including dozens of Hopkins’ descendents, some of whom travel from big cities to be here) serve up delicious homemade foods that sell out quickly as the crowd fills Main Street to celebrate their history and the legacy of an esteemed local leader.
Date: Saturday, October 10, 2009
Time: 9 a.m. until about 4 p.m.
Where: Scotts United Methodist Church, Main Street, Trappe
Activities: Church service, preaching, and choir singers (9 a.m.); food served (11 a.m. until sold out); gravesite visit (noon), parade (2 p.m.)
Car & Motorcycle Show: To benefit the Nace Hopkins Scholarship Fund. Registration & food booths in Main Street Park (10 a.m. to noon), followed by parade of entries in Nace’s Day Parade.
Food: Fresh-caught fried fish, grilled chicken BBQ, greens, macaroni and cheese, burgers, fries, home-baked desserts & more.
For more information: Scotts United Methodist Church 410-476-3980 or firstname.lastname@example.org.