Frederick Douglass is by far Talbot County’s most famous native, and with good reason. But there’s another Talbot native who survived slavery and went on to make significant and lasting contributions to the citizens of the county that still have impact today.
The name Nathaniel “Nace” Hopkins might not be as familiar as Douglass’s, but he is a Talbot County legend. His story has been told occasionally through the decades — but it can never be told enough. What Frederick Douglass was for the Nation, Hopkins was for Talbot County. He was a well-respected, well liked man of his time who helped the county move forward in the post-Civil War era.
Nace Hopkins was born an enslaved person near Bellevue and enlisted in the Union Army on November 20, 1863, to serve in the newly formed United States Colored Troops (USCT). Whether he was still enslaved or a freeman at the time of his enlistment has remained uncertain. During that period, it was common to free enslaved persons in their early to mid-30’s. This may not be as altruistic as it seems, since Maryland law required slave owners to care for enslaved persons for the rest of their lives once they reached age 45 or at any earlier age if they became disabled or infirmed. This led to many emancipations while they were in their early 30’s and still able bodied and was a contributing reason why nearly half of Talbot County’s black population was free at the start of the Civil War.
Past written accounts of Nathaniel Hopkins record his birth year between 1830 and 1834. Reviewing Nace’s death certificate and tombstone however, place his date of birth as January 18, 1834. Additional research and consultation with local historian James Dawson leads to the belief that Nace was most likely enslaved at the time of his enlistment and was probably recruited when the Union was actively recruiting free and enslaved black men on the Eastern Shore.
Nace’s military career was short. He was released on furlough on January 4, 1864, for sickness and “varicose veins.” But sometime things happen for a reason, as the saying goes, and history had other plans for Nace. Those plans were soon to be revealed.
Although Nace was illiterate, he was a natural leader and orator. He was known for being a man of his word and his descendants described Nace as always trying to help people — black and white. Family members who knew him were quoted as saying, “He accomplished whatever he had to do for his people” and he “planted his feet solidly on the ground and walked tall and strait with a look of determination.”
His natural leadership abilities, along with the respect of Talbot County citizens that he received, can be seen in the retelling of a story about the arrangements Nace made with a local farmer. Seeing a large pile of corn in a farmer’s barn, Nace made an agreement that he and some men would husk that corn in exchange for a feast of ham, cakes, and some hard cider. The farmer agreed to have “Aunt Ruth” cook the ham and provide the meal and cider. Nace arrived early on the appointed date to begin husking corn but the men he invited never appeared. Later that evening he heard sounds of revelry across the creek in the direction of Aunt Ruth’s. Upon investigating, Nace found his invited guests making merry instead of fulfilling their commitment. After some choice words, he marched them over to the corn pile and kept them at it until the wee hours of the morning and the last ear was husked.
Nathanial Hopkins is credited for helping to establish the Talbot County school system’s first black school in Trappe in 1878. Specifically, he’s been noted for his assistance in procuring the land for the school. Nace was also instrumental in building another school in the black community of Barber, originally called the Manassas School, to which he received a nomination as trustee.
Hopkins was one of the original members to incorporate the Ashbury Methodist Episcopal Church with the cornerstone laid for the new building in 1869. The church is now the Scotts United Methodist Church in Trappe and is named for the Rev. Levi Scott, who was the presiding Bishop for the area.
After the Civil War, many black communities were established throughout Talbot, and Nathanial Hopkins did his part. He helped procure 23 acres approximately four miles southeast of Trappe to establish the community of Eastfield and worked with the county to establish a proper road to the new town. In 1888, Hopkins, along with three other black men — Daniel Joshua, James Nixon, and Robinson Sewell, were appointed Road Supervisors for the Trappe district by the Talbot County Commissioners. Nace and these men were essential to maintaining and upgrading the road system in the Trappe area.
Hopkins also contributed to Talbot County politics. Although he never ran for political office, Nace put his oratory and organizational skills to good use. Along with his friend Joe Gray (also a former enslaved person), he worked diligently to “get out the black vote.” Nace and Joe gave numerous speeches nearing election day and they are greatly credited for getting many Republicans elected to local positions during that period.
One of Nathanial Hopkins’s most celebrated accomplishments has had a lasting impact upon all Talbot citizens to this day. In the summer of 1867, Nace, along with friends Jeremiah Thomas and Morris Trippe, decided to celebrate the Emancipation of Maryland’s enslaved persons, which occurred on November 1, 1864, by organizing a parade and official celebration. Nace worked diligently towards the endeavor by training local boys and girls to drill with music provided from a drum, flute, accordion, and tambourine, borrowed from neighbors. He traveled throughout Talbot asking for and securing assistance.
The citizens of Talbot, both black and white, pitched in providing many needed items and money. Nace secured permission from the County Commissioners to use the streets of Trappe for his planned parade and celebration. November 1, 1867 was the designated day for the first celebration. That day, wagons with stoves and food arrived at sunrise. Some of Trappe’s town folks had placed kitchen stoves in their front yards to prepare meals for the visitors attending the celebration. The day began with a prayer service and an 11 o’clock church service.
The parade was led by Nathaniel Hopkins himself, with his Aunt Audy Nixon by his side carrying her bible. Nace was dressed in his Union uniform with gold epaulettes and sash, a Lincoln styled top hat and a sword from the Knights of Columbus. Behind Nace and Aunt Audy came the young drill team marching to the beat of the music played by Nace’s sons, Charles and Alexander and the sons of George Brummell playing the borrowed instruments. Next in line were men in uniform, men on horses, and finally colorfully decorated wagons. After the parade the celebrants gathered at the church to listen to speeches from many orators, including Nace. Then the fun began, with games and events for the kids, horse racing and, of course, good Eastern Shore cooking featuring the region’s bounty of food.
The celebration was so successful it became an annual tradition. Nathaniel Hopkins continued to plan and lead the parade with his Aunt Audy by his side until his death thirty-three years later. Eventually, the parade became known as the “Nace’s Day” parade and grew with bands and marchers coming from not just the Eastern Shore, but Baltimore, Delaware and New Jersey as well. The church services, good food and entertainment continued. After Nace’s death the celebration started including a prayer service at Nace’s gravesite and the playing of taps over his marker.
The parade and celebration continued every year until it was interrupted by World War I. The Maryland Emancipation celebration has, however, been held many times since, with the latest in 2019. Former members of The St Michaels High School Band recall marching in the Nace’s Day parades of the 1980’s. The 1976 celebration included the unveiling of a roadside marker on Route 50 commemorating Nathaniel Hopkins that reads: “Nathaniel (Nace) Hopkins, Leader of his People Who was Born a Slave circa 1830; Fought for Union in Civil War; Originated Annual Trappe Emancipation Day Celebration, 1867 and Headed it until his Death in 1900. One of the Founders of Scott’s Methodist Church. Helped Establish First “Colored Schools” at Trappe and Barber. Buried in Old Paradise Cemetery on this Site.
This celebration of Emancipation Day was considered the first and only in the State of Maryland, and one of the first in the United States. It was an incredible accomplishment for the time. The history of the citizens of Talbot, both black and white, coming together to organize and celebrate Emancipation Day, is something we all can be proud of.
I look forward to the next fall day where we again can come together in celebration of Maryland’s Emancipation Day and to celebrate our incredible Talbot ancestor who contributed so much during his life – and to enjoy more of that great Eastern Shore food!
Paul Callahan is a Talbot native, a graduate of Saints Peter & Paul High School and the Catholic University of America and served as an Officer in the United States Marine Corp.
Sources for this article include “Irregularities in Abundance – An Anecdotal History of Trappe District in Talbot Co Md” by James Dawson which incorporates various other sources, numerous past newspaper accounts to include Easton’s Star Democrat, The Baltimore Sun and The Times Daily (Salisbury Md)
Illustrations by John Raschka