While much of the District’s 160th celebration of Emancipation Day focused on entertainment and fireworks, programs examining the history of the holiday and the influence it has on the city also took center stage.
“I think it is important to celebrate Emancipation Day because it serves as a reminder that Black people weren’t always free in D.C.,” said Erica Wright, who participated in a holiday ceremony at the African American Civil War Memorial in Northwest on April 15.
D.C. Emancipation Day celebrates the end of slavery in the District with the congressional passage and President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862. The law not only outlawed slavery in the nation’s capital but compensated owners for their human property. Approximately 3,100 enslaved persons who received freedom cost the federal government $1 million paid to slaveowners for each enslaved person they freed.
The District became the only jurisdiction to compensate slaveowners for each enslaved person they freed. Nine months later, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in an effort to end slavery and end the rebellion against the Union in the Southern states.
Emancipation Day celebrations in the District began in 1866. However, the formal city-sponsored celebration which consisted largely of a parade ended in 1901 due to a lack of financial resources and organizational conflicts. The idea of celebrating the holiday was resurrected in the 1990s due to the advocacy of historians and civic activists.
In 2000, the D.C. Council proclaimed April 16 a private holiday, meaning it received official recognition but city employees didn’t have a day off. On July 9, 2004, D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) proposed making Emancipation Day a public holiday. Orange’s legislative efforts and the signature of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams culminated in the city celebrating the holiday publicly starting in 2005.
Reading the Names of the Freed Slaves
Wright joined a dozen people at the AACWM in front of the bronze statue of Black Civil War soldiers and sailors who fought on the side of the Union forces. She attended the ceremony to participate in the annual reading of the freed slaves’ names.
“We must remember that these freed slaves had lives,” said Frank Smith, founder and executive director of the AACWM. “They were human beings. They had families and times of joy and pain. When they found out that slavery was outlawed in the District, it was a moment of jubilation for them.”
Wright said, “It felt good to read the names and the values of the slaves.”
“Every time I read the name and the value, I would wonder who they were and why they were valued in that way,” Wright said. “Could some of the slaves have had more value because they could cook or was it because they were pregnant?”
Monica Hamilton also expressed pride in reading the names and the amounts but praised the federal government for keeping good records on the slaves.
“They really kept efficient records of slave transactions and activities,” she said. “I believe this is great reference information for people who want to study the history of the city.”
The Emancipation Day Parade
The parade served as the chief activity for Emancipation Day in 1866 and it remained that way until the celebration ended in 1901. Since the holiday became legal in 2005, the parade served as one of a number of celebratory activities except in 2020 and 2021, when the parade was canceled due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions. This year, city leaders proceeded with the parade because of the low level of transmission of the coronavirus.
On April 16, hundreds of people lined both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest to observe the parade. Participants included the Eastern Senior High School Marching Band, the Nation’s Capital chapter of Jack & Jill of America; Junkyard Band, and individuals with balloons featuring images of famous Washingtonians including Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Height, Chuck Brown, Rosa Parks, Marion Barry and Barack Obama.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Robert White (D-At Large) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) used the occasion to promote their campaigns for the upcoming June primary election.
District resident Judith Hardwick said she enjoyed the parade.
“This is where I belong,” said Hardwick, watching the procession. “Our ancestors made it possible for us to be here. This is the way we can remember the past and build for the future.”
Diane Brown, who lives in Richmond, traveled to the District for Emancipation Day.
“I have been to this event before,” she said. “I thought the parade was a little short but I really enjoyed it. COVID really held us back for a few years but I see the parade and the celebration as a big step forward.”