This sprawling southern live oak tree, with limbs over a hundred feet in diameter, stands at the entrance of Hampton University (originally Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute). In 1861 droves of self-emancipated enslaved people rushed behind federal lines to reach nearby Fort Monroe in search of freedom. A free Black teacher named Mary Peake was recruited to teach the newcomers. She held her first class, which consisted of about twenty students, under the tree on September 17, 1861. The first Southern reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took place beneath the tree in 1863, thus earning the tree its name, Emancipation Oak.
In 1868 the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was established on this site by Brigadier General Samuel Armstrong with the following stated purpose:
"The thing to be done was clear: to train selected Negro youth who should go out and teach and lead their people first by example, by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they could earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor, to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands, and in this way to build up an industrial system for the sake not only of self-support and intelligent labor, but also for the sake of character."