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Blacks’ D.C. Emancipation Day

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Most people believe the oldest known slave freeing celebration is Juneteenth (June 19, 1865). However, it is predated by the District of Columbia Slave Emancipation. This story begins at least in 1816 when Congress began receiving petitions demanding an end to slavery in the nation’s capital -- a time when it was a major slave trade center. Congress put a “gag rule” on the petitions until 1844, refusing to hear them.

Nevertheless, as the USA was moving toward the Civil War as well as during the war itself, Washington, D.C. experienced a steady increase of fugitive slaves because its strategic position required it be ringed by Federal troops. Washington, D.C. jail wardens seized this opportunity to make extra cash selling jailed Blacks back into slavery. The Quakers, particularly after viewing conditions in the jail, intensified their efforts to end slavery.

In early 1862, it was ruled that USA forces could not return fugitive slaves to the Confederacy. This paved the way for Sen. Wilson of Massachusetts to introduce his bill for providing compensation to slave owners and repatriation to slaves. The Senate vote of 29-14 and the House vote of 92-38 made it veto proof and therefore President Lincoln signed this bill into law on April 16, 1862: “Be it enacted...that all persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African descent are hereby discharged and freed of and from all claim to such service or labor.”

At this time there were 14,316 Negro residents in D.C. (i.e. 19% of the city’s population). The 3,185 slaves worked in homes and business as whitewashers, engravers, flour-millers, mill-workers, and in lumber yards. Others were hotel waiters, blacksmiths, and Navy Yard cooks. The full and immediate freeing of slaves naturally caused a great uproar. Even abolitionists like John Quincy Adams said it would create “ill-will, heart-burnings and mutual hatred” between D.C. and its neighboring states.

To the surprise of most, the freeing of slaves went relatively smoothly. For example, most slave-owners did not try to smuggle their “property” out of the district before the act was passed. A committee was given the task of determining the value of each freed slave -- the total price for all slaves being over $2 million. But since Congress had set a one million dollar ceiling, owners received 48% of their slaves’ estimated value.

On April 18, 1866, Washington D.C. held its first Emancipation Day parade. Sailors, soldiers, and citizens assembled at Willard’s Hotel. Then, preceded by the Marine Band, they marched to the White House where a large crowd was waiting. President Andrew Johnson appeared and addressed the assembly. Thereafter, this annual holiday was a day of celebration, speeches, and self-affirmation. Throughout the years, Frederick Douglass was a frequent speaker.

Unfortunately, the parade soon evolved into a power struggle between factions of the Negro community. Because conflicts were clearly present by 1886, W. Calvin Chase, editor of the Bee Newspaper for Blacks, took the position of having a dignified commemoration -- church services, school essay contest, and the like.

He asserted that unnamed organizers were defrauding contributors and alluded to the “occasional loss of limbs,” drunkenness, and arrests. However, the masses of Blacks liked things the way they were. In 1899 the city stopped closing Negro schools on “D.C. Emancipation Day” in order to protect children from “sights that are at once demoralizing and degrading.” In the early 1900’s, the parade was banned. Yet, the “Literary entertainments” and church meetings continued for a while and then faded away.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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