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Family seeks roots during homecoming

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

Family history runs strong during Paducah's yearly Eighth of August festivities: strong enough to bring four generations of a Chicago family more than 300 miles to uncover their roots.

Ayyanna Hamilton, mother Demitria Jett, and grandmother Sandra Hamilton had been interested in their family's history for some time. As Sandra Hamilton, now 71, grows older, "She's feeling a sense of loss," her granddaughter said. "We wanted to do this (trip) for her, to encourage her, to let her show us where she came from."

Sandra Hamilton left Paducah at the age of 3 and has returned from time to time as an adult. But this marked the first time she came with a mission and in the company of her daughter, granddaughter and two great-granddaughters.

She said she feels a spiritual pull to find out what she can about the maternal side of her family.  

"Now that the elders are no longer around ... it's almost a necessity to revisit and dig up some of the past," she said.

Paducah celebrates the Eighth of August in recognition of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which on Jan. 1, 1863, freed all slaves held in states that were in open rebellion against the Union.

Legend has it that news of the proclamation didn't reach the state until Aug. 8, when it brought widespread celebration despite the fact that it didn't apply to Kentucky.  Local historians hold different theories as to the true origin of the holiday, but it continues to unite Paducahans and serve as the occasion for many family reunions.

"People want to see family. They want to honor heritage," said Judy Calhoun, who helped coordinate Saturday's parade and served as its announcer. "I see the joy of the children and the people at reunions, and I love to see people that are happy and excited to embrace each other."

Saturday's parade featured grand marshals Robert Davies, president of Murray State University, and Arlene Keys, one of the college's first black students. Representatives from groups including the Paducah Public Schools, the NSSR Motorcycle Club, Mercy Regional EMS, the Nia Dancers, and several community mentoring and service organizations made up the procession.

The celebration was an ideal chance for the family to reach out to leaders in the black community to help in their search.  But much like the origin of Emancipation Day, the family's roots remained partially obscure at the end of their trip.

 One man at the parade recalled knowing Elizabeth Hayes, Sandra Hamilton's great-grandmother, who was born in 1869. The search also led to several unmarked plots at Oak Grove Cemetery and to a house at 606 S. 7th St. The family discovered that their ancestors all attended the old Lincoln High School, but they were unable to find any pictures of their relatives.

They will continue investigating, but aren't sure when they'll be able to return to Paducah. They ask anyone with information on the Hayeses or Hathaways to email ayyannahamilton4@gmail.com.

"(The experience) was really kind of surreal to me, because it's almost like taking a trip back into the past that I never really had," Sandra Hamilton said. "It's been a pleasure and an experience doing this, and I really would love to ... continue to delve into it."

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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