April 16, 1862: DC's First Emancipation Day
On April 16, 1862- nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation- President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The legislation freed more than three thousand slaves, and set aside more than $1 million dollars to compensate local slaveholders. We mark the 150th anniversary of "Emancipation Day," and explore how slavery came to an end in the nation's capital.
The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 was the first legal document in the U.S. to outlaw slavery (though it applied just to the District of Columbia). It also allowed affected slaveowners to request compensation from the government for the slaves they were now required to free. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Civil War Washington project has made reimbursement petitions that slaveowners submitted available for viewing online. The petitions offer names and characteristics of slaves by their former owners that provide a unique window into how the owners viewed the people that had formerly been their property. For instance, the following explanation is from Mr. Edward Deeble's petition from 5 May, 1862, describing his former slave, Elizabeth: "A Mullatto, five feet two inches high, stout built, and good cooking. Her health is and always was good, having had the smallpox several years ago of which she speedily recovered and the only remains of the disease is the marks usually attending that disease."