There are a couple of different places along Route 50 between Easton and Cambridge to stop and consider the fascinating life of Nathaniel “Nace” Hopkins, a native son whose journey began in slavery and included stints in jail and the Union Army before he launched one of the oldest and sweetest civic traditions on the Delmarva Peninsula—Uncle Nace’s Day.
Highlighted by a parade, church services, and a community picnic with music and vendors, the annual celebration dates clear back to 1867. The 2018 edition of the event on Sat., Nov. 3 will be the 151st edition of the affair, making it one of the longest-running civic traditions on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Details on this year’s event are here.
Historians have not been able to document the life of Nace Hopkins in great detail. He was born a slave sometime in the early 1830s. He would have been about 30 years old in 1863 when President Lincoln began allowing the enlistment of black men in the Union Army. Hopkins signed up, but was sent back home to Trappe just a few months later, having been judged too ill to continue serving.
Slavery was still legal when he arrived back home. When Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, it didn’t do all that much for slaves in Maryland—it freed enslaved people only in states that had joined the Confederacy, not slave-holding states that remained in the Union. In October of 1864, Hopkins actually landed in jail for the alleged crime of encouraging a young slave to run away. It wasn’t until November of 1864 that Maryland voters approved a new state constitution that outlawed slavery. Three years later, Hopkins organized a parade to celebrate the freedom so many of his African American brethren now enjoyed.
From that first year right on through to today, the event has been a mix of church services, a parade, and a community feast. In his book, Trappe: The Story of an Old-Fashioned Town, the writer Dickson Preston notes that it was:
… in Trappe, alone of all the places on the southern-oriented Eastern Shore, that 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 in 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.
Uncle Nace personally led the parade every year up until his death in 1900. The writer Ann Dorbin says that Hopkins would lead the annual march through town dressed in “resplendent” fashion, “complete with gold epaulets, a silk sash around his waist, and a gleaming sword.” Following him would be bands, singing groups, horseback riders, and various decorated wagons and carts. In modern-day versions of the event, that same sword is in the hands of an actor portraying Hopkins at the head of the parade.
A good number of Uncle Nace’s descendants march, too. Sometimes, the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle troupe has usually been on hand to participate as well. The women of Scott’s United Methodist Church (a congregation that Hopkins helped found back in 1871) cook up crab cakes, fried oysters, fried chicken, and all kinds of delectable sides for the occasion as well.
In its earliest days, Uncle Nace’s Day was a highly political affair. Hopkins was active in the local Republican party—back then blacks voted overwhelmingly for the “party of Lincoln”—and it’s no coincidence that the parade was usually scheduled for a weekend right before election day. In 1900, the Washington Evening Times newspaper dubbed Hopkins “the great Republican leader of the colored people of Talbot County” and said that on parade day he would “summon colored voters from all parts of the county” and arrange speeches “solidifying them to vote the Republican ticket.”
In addition to helping found Scott’s United Church, Hopkins seems to have had a role in the founding of two schools. Among his business dealings was an effort to start a new residential development in Trappe for black families. I have not yet seen any detailed account of how and why the Baltimore Sun came to describe Hopkins as a “pauper” at the time of his passing in 1900.
The tradition Hopkins started in Trappe nearly died out in the 1970s. But as the town’s residents prepared to mark the American Bicentennial in 1976, they decided to put a high priority on bringing the Uncle Nace’s Day tradition back to a fuller life. They recruited volunteers and raised funds to support the event.
Those funds helped pay for a new headstone at Hopkins’ grave. You can visit that grave today in Old Paradise Cemetery on the east side of Route 50 where it intersects with Barber Road. On the west side of Route 50, that same intersection leads up Main Street, where there is a small park designed in honor of Hopkins. Its grand opening occurred in 2017.
–Written by Jim Duffy; posted Oct. 30, 2017 and updated on Oct. 29, 2018
• Note on directions: Though marked Route 50 East and Route 50 West, the highway is actually traveling in a north/south direction between Cambridge and Easton. As you approach the stoplight at Barber Road, a marker in honor of Hopkins is quite visible on the east side of the road. His grave in Old Paradise Cemetery is near the marker. Nace Hopkins Memorial Park on the other side of the highway, a little way up and across the street from Scott’s United Methodist Church, 3748 Main Street in Trappe, Maryland.
Note on other things to do in the area: If you are interested in other attractions and activities near Trappe, here is the Talbot County Tourism website, and here is the Dorchester County Tourism website.
Note on photo up top: It shows a scene from the 1914 edition of the Nace’s Day Parade. That and the other historical photos here are from the Maryland State Archives.