Charlotte Picnic: Families continue homecoming for over 100 years

Charlotte Picnic: Families continue homecoming for over 100 years

Herald staff  |  Nashville Tennessean

Longtime Lone Star Lodge No. 15 member John Killebrew and other volunteers were busy cooking pork butts, whole hog and chicken Thursday morning. 

They were preparing for the 119th Charlotte Picnic as is tradition for members the lodge, which was the 15th Masonic organization founded by African descendants in Tennessee.

“That’s a good photo right there,” said Walter Primm to a visitor, pointing at the coal-heated pit where Anthony Primm poured seasoning on butts.  

Smoke wafted around the picnic site Thursday and continued into Friday, just a few yards away from heavily-traveled Highway 48 in Charlotte. Friday afternoon, a line formed to buy barbecue at the pit concession stand fittingly located on Picnic Street. 

Families annually return from around Middle Tennessee and the country to visit, including NBA Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson who was born in Charlotte. He wrote about the reunions in his autobiography: “I loved those summers, that place, and that time. Every year on the third Friday in August, there was a huge family outing called the Charlotte Picnic, a huge gathering of relatives and friends from all over.”

Andrew Johnson’s freed slaves 

Local historian Serina Gilbert believes the Charlotte Picnic was likely connected to the Emancipation Proclamation, though the first picnic gathering was 40 years after the document was signed. The Emancipation Proclamation on Jan 1, 1863 stated that “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Gilbert said it’s likely that Tennessee slaves were likely unaware they were free until the years that followed when the Civil War ended and Tennessean Andrew Johnson became president following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. 

Johnson freed the people he had enslaved in August of 1863, and Gilbert believes that’s possibly why the Charlotte Picnic and other African-American homecomings are in August. 

“I really feel it was connected to the Emancipation,” Gilbert said. “If it was a celebration of emancipation, they weren’t calling it a celebration but just a gathering.” 

“Many of them were coming back home. People who had left Tennessee because there were mass migrations in Tennessee and throughout the South during this period. Especially following World War I and World War II,” Gilbert added. 

Fundraiser going on 119 years

As a longtime lodge member, Killebrew took over the picnic organization. 

Killebrew noted that two years ago, due to COVID, the picnic was canceled. Last year, he said they had “a pretty decent crowd.” 

“This year with the weather being pretty, we expect a pretty big turnout tomorrow evening,” Killebrew said. 

The picnic also raises money for the lodge – and those in need. 

“It’s a fundraiser that’s been going on for 119 years,” said Killebrew. “It’s a tool we can use so we can push (funds) back into the community and help out. We do a scholarship every year. And, feed some of the needy around our community.”