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Ending Slavery in the District of Columbia

This booklet describes events related to the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC, which occurred on April 16, 1862, nearly nine months before the more famous “Emancipation Proclamation” was issued.

The District of Columbia, which became the nation’s capital in 1791, was by 1862 a city of contrasts: a thriving center for slavery and the slave trade, and a hub of anti-slavery activity among abolitionists of all colors. Members of Congress represented states in which slavery was the backbone of the economy, and those in which slavery was illegal.

One result of the intense struggle over slavery was the DC Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, passed by the Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The act ended slavery in Washington, DC, freed 3,100 individuals, reimbursed those who had legally owned them and offered the newly freed women and men money to emigrate. It is this legislation, and the courage and struggle of those who fought to make it a reality that we commemorate every April 16, DC Emancipation Day.

Though the Compensated Emancipation Act was an important legal and symbolic victory, it was part of a larger struggle over the meaning and practice of freedom and citizenship. These two words continue to be central to what it means to be a participating member of society. We invite you to think about what these concepts have meant in the past and what they mean to you today.

A New National Capital

The area we know as the District of Columbia was selected as the site for the capital of the United States in 1791. It was created by land ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland, two slave-holding states of the Chesapeake region. The District of Columbia, which included Washington City, Georgetown, Washington County and Alexandria (until 1846), became a center for slavery and the slave trade.

Slavery was a legal, economic and social institution. In legal terms, it meant that certain individuals had the right to purchase and “own” other human beings as property. These individuals were then able to profit from the labor of the people they “owned” who were forced to work without getting paid. Slavery, however, was not simply an institution that benefited propertied individuals; it was an economic system that allowed the United States, particularly the southern states, to develop as it did.

Slavery also hinged on the modern and pseudo-scientific concept of race, which is based on skin color. By constructing a belief in biological differences based on color, people who were called “white” justified the oppression of people who were called “black.”

Early African-American Population

In 1800, African Americans were 25 percent of the District’s population of 14,093, sharing the new capital with Native American and white people. The majority of these African-American people were enslaved. The image most of us have of slavery is large plantations or farms in the rural South where large numbers of women, men and children labored. In the District, as in cities across the South, black people labored and lived in a range of settings, often singly or in small numbers.

As the nation’s capital was developing, there was a great need for skilled and unskilled laborers. African Americans helped to construct the U.S. Capitol building, the White House and other public and private projects. While the vast majority of those enslaved did not earn money or wages, there were some who were permitted by their owners to earn money, and eventually purchased their freedom. And because there were no laws in Washington, DC requiring the newly freed to leave the District upon gaining their legal freedom, the free black population continued to grow. Other enslaved people gained their legal freedom, or manumission, when their owners provided for it in their wills. Once their owners died, they were legally free.

Limits on Freedom

The growing free African American population in the capital worried pro-slavery white people, including the mayor, Robert Brent, and the Board of Aldermen, the precursor to the Council of the District of Columbia. Through the introduction of laws known as “Black Codes,” they sought to solidify slavery as an institution and to strengthen the concept of racial segregation in the city. They also restricted the meaning and practice of legal freedom for free black people.

The mayor and aldermen legislated the first set of Black Codes in 1808. These codes made it unlawful for “Negroes” or “loose, idle, disorderly persons” to be on the streets after 10 p.m. Free black people who violated this curfew could be fined five dollars (equal to $65 in 2007). Enslaved African Americans had to rely on their owners to pay the fine. The punishment for nonpayment of fines was whipping. The mayor and aldermen enacted a harsher set of Black Codes in 1812. Free black people could be fined $20 if they violated the curfew, and jailed for six months if the fine went unpaid. Enslaved people received the same fine but the punishment for nonpayment was 40 lashes. In addition, free African Americans had to register with the local government and carry their certificates of freedom at all times.

In 1821, Mayor Samuel Smallwood and the Board of Aldermen imposed even greater restrictions on free black people in the District. The new set of Black Codes required them to appear before the mayor with documents signed by three white people vouching for their good character, proving their free status. They also had to pay a “peace bond” of $20 to a “respected” white man as a commitment to good behavior. This code illustrates the precarious nature of freedom for non-enslaved African Americans, by attempting to control the movement of people of color.

Free African Americans contested the codes. William Costin, for example, refused to pay the peace bond. In court, Costin argued that the Constitution “knows no distinction of color. That all who are not slaves are equally free...equally citizens of the United States." The judge ruled that while the codes were legal they could not be imposed upon free black people who had been residents before the code was enacted. It was a limited, though important, victory. Costin also called into question the logic of the concept of race; his ancestors were Cherokee, European and African. For Costin, any of those could define him.

Turning Points During Slavery

The US Congress, established in 1789 and consisting solely of white men until 1870, was a focal point for intense debate about the abolition of slavery. Beginning in the late 1820s, abolitionists organized a coordinated campaign to petition Congress to end slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital. The effort to send abolitionist petitions to Congress gained strength in the mid-1830s when thousands of petitions flooded the House of Representatives. In response, southern Congressmen instituted the “Gag Rule” in 1836, banning the introduction of petitions or bills pertaining to slavery.

In all parts of the country where slavery was permitted, communities of free black people were a cause of concern to pro-slavery white people, as demonstrated by several highly publicized incidents.

Denmark Vesey’s Plans for Charleston, SC

In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free black minister, planned an insurrection in reaction to the city of Charleston, South Carolina’s suppression of the African Church, a major community institution for African Americans. The conspiracy was revealed two months before the incident was to take place, resulting in the trial and subsequent hanging of Vesey and three dozen co-conspirators. City leaders publicized their accounts of the planned revolt to discourage future attempts.

The Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831

In 1831, Nat Turner, an enslaved African American, led a major rebellion in Southampton, Virginia. Turner’s rebellion started the night he murdered the family that owned him, before moving on to attack other nearby white families. As he went, he was joined by more and more enslaved people, and by the time they approached the closest town, Turner and his cohort had killed more than fifty white men, women and children. The implications of this rebellion reverberated throughout the country. White District residents became even more fearful of African Americans questioning slavery and desiring freedom; some responded by attacking and arresting black people throughout the District.

The Snow Riot of 1835

In August 1835, local white-owned newspapers reported that the District had its own “Nat Turner.” They alleged that Arthur Bowen, an 18-year old enslaved African American, attempted to murder Anna Maria Thornton, the wealthy white widow of William Thornton, the Architect of the Capitol. Mrs. Thornton legally owned Bowen, and he and his mother lived in her home in the 1300 block of F Street NW. When Arthur Bowen was arrested and jailed, a white mob of mostly Irish mechanics gathered at the city jail, then located at Judiciary Square, and threatened to hang Bowen.

The mechanics’ anger was also directed at white abolitionists who worked to get Congress to end the slave trade in the District. Dr. Reuben Crandall, a botanist and doctor with an office in Georgetown and brother of Prudence Crandall, a vocal Connecticut abolitionist, was the primary target. Assumed guilty by association, police searched Dr. Crandall’s
office and found antislavery publications. He was arrested and jailed on charges of incitement to rebellion.

The mob outside the jail sought hanging as a punishment for both Bowen and Crandall and hoped to inflict the punishment themselves. Prevented by the police from gaining access to Bowen and Crandall, they redirected their anger toward Mr. Beverly Snow’s popular Epicurean Eating House, located nearby at the corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. They ransacked the restaurant, destroying furniture and breaking liquor bottles, forcing Snow to flee the District. After looting Snow’s restaurant, they continued their rampage by vandalizing other black-owned businesses and institutions, including Rev. John F. Cook, Sr.’s church and school at the corner of 14th and H streets, NW. Fearing that the mob would come after him, Rev. Cook fled to Pennsylvania.

The impact of the Snow Riot lasted far beyond the few days of violence. As one of a number of clashes in the 1830s and 1840s, it was emblematic of the continued centrality of slavery in the nation’s capital.

The Pearl Incident of 1848

On the evening of April 15, 1848, at least 75 enslaved adults and children from Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria sought freedom on the Pearl, a 64 foot cargo schooner waiting for them in the Potomac River at a wharf in Southwest DC. The escape was facilitated by two white men: Daniel Drayton, who chartered the ship for $100, and Edward Sayres, the captain of the Pearl.

After dark on that Saturday night, the freedom seekers made their way to the wharf in small family groups. The Pearl set off to sail by night down the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, and subsequently to the Chesapeake Bay where the captain planned to turn and head toward Pennsylvania, but bad weather slowed the voyage. The next morning, when the 41 white families that owned the fugitives discovered the escape, a posse was formed to capture them. Having learned about the escape route from an informer, the posse of 30 white men traveled by steamboat and overtook the Pearl at Point Lookout, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, and returned all aboard to Washington.

As the news of the escape attempt spread, pro-slavery rioters attacked known abolitionist businesses for three days. Drayton and Sayres were held in the city jail, from which a mob attempted to remove them for hanging. Most of the escapees were jailed before being sold to slave dealers in New Orleans and Georgia. A few secured their freedom and became abolitionists.

Though unsuccessful, historians believe that it was the nation’s largest single escape attempt. The Pearl incident also increased national attention to the existence of slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital.

Retrocession of Alexandria

In 1846, Congress voted to permit the portion of the District of Columbia that was south of the Potomac River to “retrocede” or return to Virginia, resulting in the oddly-shaped outline of the nation’s capital we have now. Though the impetus for retrocession was not clearly related to the institution of slavery, the return of this land to Virginia’s jurisdiction had immediate and dire consequences to African Americans living there: the loss of access to education. Unlike DC, Virginia had laws against educating black people, so all schools for African Americans were closed for almost fifteen years until the Union Army occupied Alexandria during the Civil War, and reopened them.

The Compromise of 1850

As conflicts between pro- and anti-slavery factions continued, and the country continued to grow, Congress decided to step in to address the regional disputes over slavery. The “Compromise of 1850” sought to appease both sides by ending or preventing the introduction of slavery and the slave trade in new states while allowing slavery and the slave trade to continue in states where already legal. The effect of the compromise in the District of Columbia was the introduction of a slave-trade act that prevented the importation of enslaved people into the District for resale or transportation elsewhere, but continued to allow the sale of enslaved District residents to slave holders. This was done by a slave-owning Congressman from Kentucky, in an effort to appear to make concessions to abolitionists. The public auctions of enslaved women, men and children continued, as did slave prisons and the sight of groups of handcuffed, or coffled, black people walking through the city on their way to or from being sold.

The Abolition Movement in the District of Columbia

By 1830, there were more free African Americans than enslaved people in Washington, DC. This growing population, together with those enslaved, organized churches, private schools, benevolent societies and businesses. Building these community institutions gave black District residents a sense of ownership and control over parts of their lives, and provided opportunities for organized resistance to slavery.

By 1850, free African Americans outnumbered those enslaved by almost two to one. According to the US Census, there were 8,461 free and 4,694 enslaved African Americans. The District’s role as a center of abolitionism gained momentum with the repeal of the Gag Rule in 1844, and the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Beginning in the early 1850s, anti-slavery Congressmen pushed for Congress to use its constitutional power to "exercise exclusive legislation" to end slavery in the District. It would take another decade for that to happen.

Washington, DC also served as an important stop on what was popularly called the "Underground Railroad," a network of black and white abolitionists who worked "underground" or clandestinely, at great risk, to assist enslaved people seeking freedom in northern states and Canada.

The National Era Newspaper

Anti-slavery newspapers were another important aspect of the abolition movement that required commitment and fearlessness for those involved. The National Era newspaper, for example, was a target of a pro-slavery mob following the Pearl incident. The paper was founded in Washington, DC by the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Gamaliel Bailey, a well-known white anti-slavery journalist, took over as the principal editor in 1847. Much of Bailey’s focus was on the abolition of the slave trade in the District. In 1851-1852, Bailey serialized Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, making it the first time the story was widely available to the reading public.

The Civil War

The Civil War, also known as the “War Between the States,” was essentially a struggle over keeping the United States of America united, and the issue that divided the states was the institution of slavery. With the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as President, the slaveholding South became increasingly nervous that their livelihood and way of life were threatened. By February 1861, all “deep South” states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. None of the “border states” with slavery (Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and Delaware) seceded. After the first clash at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, most of the upper south states, including Virginia, left the Union and joined the Confederacy. The Civil War had begun.

African-American Refugees Arrive

Drawn by the relatively large black population in Washington, DC, and the headquarters of Union forces, African-American refugees began entering the District in 1861 from Maryland, Virginia and other southern states. Although the District was mostly pro-Union, it was still a dangerous place for enslaved blacks seeking freedom. Many “slave catchers” and “slave hunters” combed the city looking for fugitives to return South. By 1864, when fugitive slave laws were repealed and slavery was abolished in Maryland, Washington, DC was safe for refugees.

By the end of the Civil War, more than 25,000 African Americans had moved to DC. Refugee camps were created to accommodate the new residents, often near the sites of forts that are preserved throughout the District. There were camps at Duff Green’s Row on First Street between East Capitol and A Streets SE, at Camp Barker at 12th Street and Vermont Avenue, NW, and at Freedmen’s Village just across the river in Arlington. Most of the refugees in the camps were women, children, the infirmed and the elderly. Most young men had either fled further north or had enlisted as soldiers, sailors or laborers in the war effort.

African‐American Soldiers and Sailors

On April 23, 1861, a few days after Ft. Sumter was attacked, Jacob Dodson wrote a letter to the U.S. Secretary of War informing him that “I have some three hundred reliable colored free citizens of this City, who desire to enter the services for the defense of the City.” The reply was “this Department has no intention at present to call into the service of Government any colored soldiers.” It would be two years into the war before the U.S. Army’s policy changed.

The US Navy was more receptive to employing African Americans. Black sailors began serving in September 1861. The Navy’s role was to blockade southern ports, control major rivers, and repel Confederate privateers and cruisers that attempted to prey on Union merchant ships. Approximately 480 black men born in the District served in the Navy during the Civil War. The Army’s First Regiment, US Colored Troops, was organized and trained in spring and summer of 1863 in Washington, DC. They trained at Analostan Island (now Roosevelt Island). There were also District men who served in regiments raised elsewhere in the Union. James T. Wormley, who owned the hotel at the corner of 15th and H Streets NW, served in the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry.

Of the more than 209,000 black men who served as Civil War soldiers; 3,265 were from Washington, DC. Their names appear on the African American Civil War Memorial at Vermont Avenue and U Street NW. Black women served as nurses and other ways in the war effort. Elizabeth Keckley, the formerly enslaved memoirist, organized the Contraband Relief Association to help women and children; Sojourner Truth worked at Freedmen’s Village in Arlington.

The issue of African Americans serving in the US military turned out to be a key issue in ending slavery and eventually, ending the war.

1862: A Pivotal Year Toward Ending Slavery

The DC Compensated Emancipation Act

During the Civil War, Charles Sumner, the senior senator from Massachusetts, and a vocal abolitionist, asked President Lincoln: “Do you know who is at this moment the largest slaveholder in the United States?” Sumner informed Lincoln that he was the largest slaveholder because the President “holds all the slaves of the District of Columbia.” Sumner was referring to the fact that the federal government was empowered in the US Constitution to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the federal district. Though this interpretation of the federal government’s constitutional power continues to be a source of conflict, abolitionists used it as a way to end slavery in the national capital.

In December 1861, Henry Wilson, the junior Massachusetts senator, introduced a bill in Congress to end slavery in Washington, DC. despite considerable opposition from slaveholding Congressmen, aldermen and residents, the bill passed. The Senate approved the bill on April 3, 1862 and the House of Representatives on April 12, 1862. President Lincoln signed the legislation on April 16, 1862.

Titled “An Act for the release for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia," it freed the 3,100 women, men and children who were still enslaved in 1862. The act also allowed for slaveowners to be compensated up to $300 for each individual they had legally owned. In addition, newly-freed African Americans could receive up to $100 if they chose to emigrate to another country.


A three-member Emancipation Commission was established to determine who could legally claim compensation and disburse funds. The claimants had to show papers proving that they had legally owned the formerly enslaved people, and were required to pledge loyalty to the Union. Though the majority of claimants were white, there were African Americans who received compensation for family members whose titles they had purchased in order to keep them from being sold. At the end of the compensation process, the federal government had spent close to $1 million dollars to compensate individuals for their “property.”

Emancipation by Legislation and Proclamation

On July 12, 1862, Congress passed an addendum to the April 16 act, permitting formerly enslaved people whose former owners had not filed claims for compensation to do so. Additionally, the DC Supplemental Emancipation Act permitted African Americans to testify to the veracity of others' claims. Because the admissibility of testimony given by African Americans had been challenged in the past, this was a new and heartening development to those who argued for equality of treatment under law.

Five days later, July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which freed enslaved people throughout the country whose owners were serving in the Confederate Army. Slavery was abolished in the US territories on July 19, 1862, again in an effort to cut off support to the Confederate states.

Ten days after signing the DC Supplemental Emancipation Act, President Lincoln told his cabinet of his intention to threaten the Confederate states with freeing the enslaved people in their states if they did not re -join the Union. This plan was not implemented until September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln signed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which announced his deadline of January 1, 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Nine months after signing the DC Emancipation Act, and one hundred days after issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation was primarily of symbolic importance. No enslaved people were immediately freed by the proclamation because it excluded slave-holding border states—Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky—out of fear of sending them into rebellion. Enslaved people living in states controlled by the Confederacy could only be freed if and when the Union Army arrived and liberated them in person. Yet the Emancipation Proclamation clarified that slavery would end in states that did not return to the Union.

Six months after the last Confederate general surrendered his troops to the Union Army, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress in December 1865, finally outlawed slavery throughout the entire United States, including those areas earlier excluded by the Emancipation Proclamation.

After Emancipation

Emancipation Celebrations and Parades

African Americans responded immediately and enthusiastically to the DC Emancipation Act and the Emancipation Proclamation. The first Emancipation Parade took place on April 19, 1866, the fourth anniversary of the DC Emancipation Act. It was a huge, joyous event, which brought out close to half of the city’s African American population. Thousands participated in the parade that began at Franklin Square, wound its way throughout the city, and returned to Franklin Square for speeches. Many thousands more lined the main thoroughfares of the District, including Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, to watch the parade. The Washington Bee newspaper claimed that the Emancipation Parade was the “grandest event in the history of the colored race.”

On May 12, 1866, a wood engraving sketched by F. Dielman, a white artist, was published in Harper’s Weekly, a popular white-owned magazine. It is the only known representation of the first Emancipation Parade.

DC Emancipation parades continued from 1866 to 1901. Church celebrations, which had begun in 1862, continued after 1901. The tradition of Emancipation commemorations was revived in 1991, in large part due to the initiative and research of Loretta Carter Hanes, a District native. Mrs. Hanes, an avid student of Washington, DC history, and founder of Reading Is Fundamental in the District of Columbia, began an annual wreath-laying ceremony in Lincoln Park (on East Capitol Street between 11th and 13th Streets) at the statue of Lincoln, installed in 1876, that was paid for entirely by donations from formerly enslaved people.

The parades, organized to celebrate the abolition of slavery, were also used to make public demands for full citizenship. African Americans recognized that legal freedom— through the DC Emancipation Act, Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment—did not automatically confer full citizenship. As a result, African Americans began a larger struggle over the meaning and practice of freedom and citizenship in the United States.

The overwhelming joy engendered by DC emancipation was expressed by poet James Madison Bell in his poem:
Unfurl your banners to the breeze!
Let Freedom’s tocsin sound amain,
Until the islands of the seas
Re-echo with the glad refrain!
Columbia’s free! Columbia’s free!
Her teeming streets, her vine-clad groves,
Are sacred now to Liberty,
And God, who every right approves.

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