A Historical Overview of DC Emancipation

April 16, 1862 marks the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Over 3,000 enslaved persons were freed eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation liberated slaves in the South. The District also has the distinction of being the only part of the United States to have compensated slave owners for freeing enslaved persons they held.

The struggle to end slavery in the District was long and arduous. From the city’s beginning, various individuals and groups, with often diverse motives, signed anti-slavery petitions, wrote negative newspaper articles, and openly deplored the wide open practice of slavery and slave trading that occurred all over the city. Incidents such as Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia, and Snow Riot of 1835, the Pearl Affair and Riot in 1848, and the presence of the local Underground Railroad also highlighted the issue of slavery in the District.

As thousands of blacks flocked to the Nation’s capital seeking a haven from bondage during the early years of the Civil War, pressure increased on President Abraham Lincoln to take a bold step. With the help of Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Lincoln got the bill through Congress. On April 16, 1862, he issued the following document:

Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and the House of Representatives:

The act entitled “an act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” has this day been approved and signed.

I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in this district, and I have ever desired to see the National Capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there has never been in my mind any question upon the subject except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances. If there be matters within and about this act which might have taken a course or shape more satisfactory to my judgments, I do not attempt to specify them. I am gratified that the two principles of compensation and colonization are both recognized and practically applied in the act.

In the matter of compensation, it is provided that claims may be presented within ninety days from the passage of the act, “but not thereafter”, and there is no savings for minors, femes covert, insane or absent persons, I presume this is an omission by mere oversight, and I recommend that it be supplied by an amendatory or supplemental act.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
Washington, April 16, 1862.
(Published text of emancipation decree in the District of Columbia from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly)

News of Lincoln’s action raced through the city. The joy in the District’s black community was dramatic and profound. One black District citizen wrote to a friend in Baltimore, “This indeed has been a happy day to me sights have I witnessed that I have anticipated.”

He then described how he gave the happy news to two female friends of his, one of whom had an enslaved son:

When I entered they perceived that something was ahead and emmediately [sic] asked me “What’s the news?” The District’s free says I pulling out the “National Republic” and reading its editorial. When I had finished the chambermaid had left the room sobbing for joy. The slave women clapped her hands and shouted, left the house saying, “let me go and tell my husband that Jesus has done all things well.” While the cook who is free retired to another room to offer thanks for the blessing sent. Should I not feel glad to see so much rejoicing around me? Were I a drinker I would get on a Jolly spree today, but as a Christian I can but kneel in prayer and bless God for the privilege I’ve enjoyed this day….Would to God that the Law applied also to Baltimore but a little patience and all will be well.

The “Anglo-African,” a black newspaper published in New York, placed the event into a national perspective with an editorial that included the following words:

It was a fitting celebration of the anniversary of Fort Sumter, that Congress should pass a bill to emancipate the capital from the thrall of slavery forever. Henceforth, whatever betide the national, its physical heart is freed from the presence of slavery....

April 16 remained a special day in the hearts of the District’s black residents. On the first emancipation day anniversary after the end of the Civil War, the city’s black community organized a huge parade. The District of Columbia emancipation day parade became an annual event that continued into the early years of the twentieth century.

by C.R. Gibbs, Historian