Celebrate: DC Emancipation Day!

By Wendy Swanson via Lincolnian

Washington D.C.

Thursday, April 15, 2021


From the Lincoln Group Archives

The F. Dielman sketch shown above originally appeared in the May 12, 1866 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The illustration depicts a celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, on April 16, 1866, the fourth anniversary of DC emancipation.

This Friday, the 16th, is D.C. Emancipation Day, an official public holiday in the District since 2005. The day commemorates an important anniversary. On April 16, 1862, the enslaved people in Washington, D.C. were freed when President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act “for the release of certain persons held to service, or labor in the District of Columbia,” and for appointment of a board of commissioners to appraise slaves of loyal citizens and allow payment not exceeding an average of $300. On the same day, he appointed commissioners to act for abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.


In a statement upon signing the D.C. emancipation bill, President Lincoln declared: “I have never doubted the constitutional authority of congress to abolish slavery in the District; and I have ever desired to see the nation’s 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 judgment, 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.”


After the enactment of D.C. emancipation Lincoln told a friend: “Little did I dream in 1849, when I proposed to abolish slavery in this capital, and could scarcely get a hearing for the proposition, that it would be so soon accomplished.” Frederick Douglass called the law “that first great step towards that righteousness which exalts a nation.” Citing D.C. emancipation, white abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher said: “[W]e have found by experience that though Abraham Lincoln is sure, he is slow; and that though he is slow, he is sure.” (Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Vol. 2 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) p. 345)

After the end of the Civil War ended and after the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ending slavery, celebrations of the day in the District began in earnest. This was a day for speeches but also a parade that wound by the White House. The parade tradition ended in 1901 but restarted in 2002. Mrs. Loretta Carter-Hanes receives the credit for the research, lobbying and leadership that brought this about. Several years earlier she had begun organizing events to recognize the importance of the day.


In recent years Emancipation Day has featured a variety of events held throughout the month of April: special programs, concerts, speeches and, of course, a parade. This year, in a year of Covid, all events are virtual and the topic of DC statehood is prominently featured in some of programs; see emancipation.dc.gov/events. On Friday at 6 p.m. the African American Civil War Museum will hold a reading of the names of those freed by the Act, 3100 in all. See the site’s event calendar at afroamcivilwar.org.