Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day, a holiday marking the anniversary of an act of Congress that provided for the emancipation of people held as slaves in the District of Columbia, was be observed Friday, April 15, this year (April 16, the actual anniversary date, fell on a Saturday). It was on April 16 in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that abolished slavery in the capital city of the United States.

The Civil War had been in progress for a year, meaning that slavery was still legal in the capital of the Union while it was fighting a war in which slavery was a key issue.

Though previous efforts had been made to eliminate slavery in the District of Columbia, it was a bill introduced by Sen.  Henry Wilson late in 1861 that finally became a law. The measure, titled “An Act for the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia,” not only emancipated the slaves but also provided for compensation to owners of the slaves being freed.

During the days preceding Lincoln’s approval of the bill, many slaves–-particularly those who would fetch the best prices at slave markets-–were taken out of the District. Either owners did not want to give up their slaves, or they felt that their monetary value was higher than what they would receive as compensation under the new law.

Slaves were not freed automatically. There was a process to be followed, which was handled by a commission of three men, known as the Emancipation Commission. As with any undertaking by the government, administration of the emancipation law involved procedure and paperwork. Owners were to report to the office of the Emancipation Commission in the City Hall, preferably with their slaves. The commissioners would determine the value of each slave, and that amount would be paid to the slaveholder as compensation. Owners also had to provide evidence from two witnesses in order to assure the commissioners that they had title to the slaves they claimed to own, and also to testify to the owners’ loyalty to the Union (rebel owners were not to be compensated).

The process was involved enough that attorney John M. Binckley placed ads in Washington papers offering, at moderate fees, his services in drawing up and presenting applications to “loyal owners” seeking “compensation for freed slaves.”

In the end, former slaves were given certificates of freedom, and owners received checks.

(Excerpted from the article, Emancipation Day: The End of Slavery in the Capital of a Free Nation by David Fiske)