Why Emancipation Day is Held April 16 in Washington, D.C.

Emancipation Day

Slaveholding was still a way of life for some residents of Washington, D.C. even after the Civil War began.  But in 1862 that changed.

The D.C. Emancipation Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862, and it granted immediate emancipation to all slaves within the District of Columbia as well as compensation of up to $300 per slave to loyal Unionist slaveholders.  This was nine months before Lincoln issued the broader Emancipation Proclamation.

Why Washington D.C?

Emancipation Day

Given that Washington, D.C. was the seat of the federal government and was the center of command for the Union Army as guided by the President, this seems a natural step, but it was not a consideration when the war began.

Slavery existed in Washington since the birthplace of the city in 1790 when Congress created the federal territory from lands held by slave states of Virginia and Maryland. Because of its location, Washington became a popular center for slave trading. As the South began to develop as a prime market for cotton, the need for slave labor was high, so there was a continuing need for more slaves. The marketplace continued.

The Compromise of 1850 prohibited slave trading in the nation’s capital, but it did not emancipate any of the slaves currently working for D.C. slaveholders.

However, over time, the sentiment of the city regarding slavery shifted.  In 1800 in the black population, slaves outnumbered the free by four to one. By 1860, the number of free blacks actually exceeded the number of slaves three to one.

The change came in many different forms. Some slave owners voluntarily released their slaves. In addition, an increasing number of Northerners who did not own slaves took up residence in the capital. However, it was still a scary world for African Americans. The burden of proof as to their status as “free” always rested on the black person. They were required to carry with them a “certificate of freedom.” And of course, no certificate protected them from those intent on capturing them and selling them as slaves.

Those still enslaved feared being sold to Southern owners, and being separated from their families.

3100 Slaves Still Needed Freedom

Emancipation Day

By the start of the Civil War, the number of enslaved people in the District of Columbia numbered 3100.  Abolitionists wanted the count to be zero.

Senator Charles Sumner, senior senator from Massachusetts, may have been the most persuasive when he said to Lincoln: “Do you know who is at this moment the largest slaveholder in the United States?”  Sumner then pointed at Lincoln noting that the President “holds all the slaves of the District of Columbia.” (from www.emancipation.dc.gov)

In 1861, a bill to end slavery in the district passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Lincoln on April 16, 1862.

An Emancipation Commission was formed to establish the validity of those who claimed compensation. African Americans who opted to leave the country were paid $100.

Nine months later, the national Emancipation Proclamation was enacted. (January 1, 1863.)  While the war still needed to be won to enforce it, the Proclamation provided that those former slaves who were freed could be enrolled into the paid service of the United States armed forces. The Proclamation ordered all segments of the Union Army to recognize and maintain the freedom of ex-slaves.

Bringing African Americans into the Union Army was a major factor in the North’s eventual ability to win the war.

Emancipation Day in D.C: Celebrations Begin

Emancipation Day

The former slaves who opted to remain in Washington were mounted a city-wide celebration in 1866. These celebrations continued from 1866-1901, but fell away in the twentieth century.

Then in the late 1980s long-time D.C. resident Loretta Carter Hanes began a campaign to once again recognize the day.

As launched by Hanes, the first ceremony was in 1998 with a wreath-laying ceremony near the Emancipation Day memorial in Lincoln Park.

Emancipation Day Memorials

Today Washington, D.C. has two memorials dedicated to Emancipation Day. The one in Lincoln Park was dedicated in 1876. It was paid for by former slaves but the white sculptor, Thomas Bell, was overseen by a white committee. It is very much a product of a white man’s world.  President Lincoln towers powerfully above a kneeling former slave who is dressed only in a loin cloth. In one hand, Lincoln holds a copy of his Proclamation; his other hand is outstretched and rests above the head of the kneeling black man.

The more recent memorial, dedicated in 1998, is much more pleasing to today’s population.  The focal point of the memorial is three black Union infantrymen and one black Union sailor.  All four are standing resolutely.  They hold guns, and the inscription reads: “Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond.”

Inside the memorial are lists of the names of African Americans who served in the Union forces.  There are 209,145 names, leaving little doubt that African-Americans participation helped win the war that ended slavery.

But as we all know, the work is not yet done.  The task will be considered “finished” when all people, regardless of race, gender, creed, or color, are viewed equally under the law. Americans owe that to all people.

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