On Jan. 1, 1863, as the Civil War raged across the South, hundreds gathered under a large oak tree in present-day Port Royal to celebrate the end of slavery in the Confederacy.
Newly freed slaves, free blacks and whites stood together that day as President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud. Afterward, the group prayed, sang spirituals and shared a feast that included 10 barbecued oxen.
Nearly 100 people met Tuesday under that same oak, now on the campus of Naval Hospital Beaufort, to mark the proclamation's 150th anniversary.
"It feels like the spirit of our ancestors are right here with us," said the Rev. Kenneth Hodges, pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church, during the visit to the nearly 400-year-old Emancipation Oak.
The visit was part of a larger Emancipation Day celebration hosted by Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. A morning service that preceded the tree visit featured speakers, readings and gospel music. The afternoon ended with a banquet of traditional Gullah and Lowcountry foods.
"I think this is a tremendous day for everyone who came and witnessed this, but it will even go forward and be a blessing to the broader community," said Hodges, who also is a Democratic state representative from Colleton County. "There is just something about it, and I think it is badly needed at this time."
Blacks living in and around Port Royal and Beaufort had tasted freedom for months before Lincoln's final proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863. The landmark document declared all slaves in states or any parts of states still in rebellion against the Union to be "forever free" from that day forward.
Though Lincoln had no power to immediately enforce the declaration in areas held by the Confederacy, his proclamation stirred blacks already freed on the Sea Islands during the ongoing Civil War. They had been anticipating the document ever since Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation in September 1862, signaling his intent to bring the Union back together without slavery.
The first Emancipation Day event occurred at Smith Plantation, dubbed Camp Saxton by the Union troops. There, hundreds of freed blacks joined federal authorities as the proclamation was read. During the ceremonies the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a black Union regiment composed of freed blacks, received its national and regimental colors.
Mayors of Beaufort and Port Royal spoke during Tuesday's service at the church, which also featured a firsthand account of the first Emancipation Day in Port Royal from the diary of freedwoman Charlotte Fortsen and a reading of the entire Emancipation Proclamation.
College of Charleston professor Bernard Powers spoke of how religion shaped many slaves' understanding of the Civil War and other events leading to emancipation.
Later, Powers read parts of the proclamation under the tree, which gave way to an impromptu singing of the spiritual "Oh, Freedom" by Marquetta Goodwine, head of the Gullah-Geechee nation.
Powers said the day's events left a lasting impression.
"It's inspirational because it encourages you to go on and accomplish even greater things than the people who stood here were able to accomplish, and they had a tremendous record of achievement," he said.
Others left the service with a similar feeling.
Victoria Smalls, director of history and culture at the Penn Center, described it as "soul stirring."
Beaufort resident Sharon Joyce-Millen called it "a wonderful experience."
"Everything was very fitting," she said.
The Associated Press contributed.