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.


  • Edna Medford Professor of History and Chairman of the Department of History, Howard University; Co-author, "The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views" (LSU Press)
  • Kenneth Winkle Professor of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Co-editor, Civil War Washington (CivilWarDC.org)

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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.”

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  • 12:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the culture and inspiration that gave rise to Bob Marley, but first, D.C.'s first Emancipation Day. On April 18, (sic) 1862, 150 years ago today, 3,000 D.C. residents were freed from human bondage. Nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, the nation's capital became a test ground for ending slavery when Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act.

  • 12:07:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the key word was compensated. The act set aside a million dollars to pay local slaveholders for the loss of their human property, the first and only example of the government paying to free slaves. One hundred and fifty years later, that peculiar and problematic arrangement is preserved in thousands of detailed government purchase orders, providing a unique view of slaves, slaveholders and the broader economy of Civil War Washington.

  • 12:08:02

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this in studio is Edna Medford, professor of history and chairman of the Department of History at Howard University. She is co-author of book "The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views." Edna Medford, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:17

    DR. EDNA MEDFORDDelighted to be here.

  • 12:08:19

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Lincoln, Nebraska, is Kenneth Winkle. He's a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-editor of Civil War Washington, an interactive website featuring maps and copies of primary documents describing life in the nation's capital during the Civil War. You can find it at CivilWarDC.org. Kenneth Winkle, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:44

    NNAMDII don't hear Kenneth Winkle. So he will probably join us shortly on the phone. In the meantime, if you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments about D.C. Emancipation Day, is this the first time you're hearing about it, do you want to know more, call us at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.

  • 12:09:15

    NNAMDIAs I mentioned earlier on April 18, 1862 -- April 16, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act. Edna Medford, what was Washington like in April of 19 -- of 1862?

  • 12:09:32

    MEDFORDIt was an interesting place. It was the staging ground for a lot of the troops who were going into war. It was an extremely busy place, with a lot of supplies stockpiled here. It was the center of activity for the Union because it was the capital of the nation still, even though the Confederacy considered itself a separate nation. It was also a place where you would have seen a tremendously large number of contraband and fugitives from slavery.

  • 12:10:08

    MEDFORDAnd so, when the war began, you had significant numbers of African-Americans escaping the farms and plantations of Maryland and Virginia and coming to the District and joining in with the larger population of free and enslaved people here.

  • 12:10:25

    NNAMDIWell, everybody knows that Virginia was part of the Confederacy and a slaveholder state, but we sometimes forget that Maryland and D.C. were very much Southern cities, as well as states, with active slave economies. You say that a lot of the slave activity actually revolved around Montgomery County, Md., correct?

  • 12:10:46

    MEDFORDAbsolutely. I think we have to remember that a lot of the people who were still enslaved in Washington, 3,100 of them, many of them are actually owned by people in the various counties of Maryland. And so you would have had people in Montgomery County and Prince George's County who hired out their enslaved laborers to people in Washington.

  • 12:11:08

    NNAMDIAs I said, joining us by telephone is Kenneth Winkle. I think Kenneth Winkle is on now. Ken Winkle, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:11:16

    DR. KENNETH WINKLEYes. Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

  • 12:11:18

    NNAMDINow we can hear you. As we noted, this act is unique in that the government paid slaveholders. Tell us about how the Compensated Emancipation Act came about.

  • 12:11:29

    WINKLEFirst of all, Congress recognized that without compensation the law would never have passed. Sen. Charles Sumner, who worked hard for the law, said that it's not fair. It's unjust. But he likened the compensation to a ransom to free people who were being unjustly held, in this instance, in slavery.

  • 12:11:55

    NNAMDIBut in D.C. in 1862, we had no local rule. We had no home rule. The entire city was run by Congress. So this local law at its core was really national in its scope and ambition, right, Edna Medford?

  • 12:12:12

    MEDFORDAbsolutely. D.C. residents did not have the right to vote on this measure, and so they had no way of voicing their objections, except through their newspapers. And so you see all of these letters being sent to the newspapers, and their petitions to Congress as well. When they realized that they couldn't stop this measure, they sent a petition to Congress on the eve of the Senate vote requesting that Congress not allow the city to become a refuge for free blacks 'cause they assumed that that's what would happen.

  • 12:12:45

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments about how D.C. Emancipation Day came about, you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. Before the Civil War, Congress was divided bitterly over slavery, but by 1862, the balance of power within the Congress had become anti-slavery since most Southern states were no longer part of the Union.

  • 12:13:08

    MEDFORDAbsolutely. Once the Southern representatives left, it was high and open (word?) on slavery. Of course, the border states are -- the slaveholding border states are still in the Union, and they're trying to stop any kind of attack on slavery. But they're not successful.

  • 12:13:24

    NNAMDIKen Winkle, if slavery is wrong for moral reasons, which is certainly what Lincoln would assert in the Emancipation Proclamation, then isn't paying to liberate slaves also somewhat problematic?

  • 12:13:36

    WINKLEYes. It's quite problematic. Lincoln and Congress had to deal with four states, the border states that remained in the Union but kept slavery. There were objections to freeing anyone under any circumstances from those four states. Some of the representatives from the border states opposed the bill. Others tried to amend it, for example, to make colonization of the newly freed slaves mandatory.

  • 12:14:10

    WINKLESo the bill, like most acts of Congress, was one big compromise. Abolitionists were willing to accept compensation in exchange for immediate freedom for the slaves in the District. Some critics of the bill wanted a gradual process of freeing those slaves. So the abolitionists got immediate emancipation. The pro-slavery critics got compensation.

  • 12:14:44

    NNAMDIEdna Medford, where did Lincoln come down? Did he support it?

  • 12:14:48

    MEDFORDLincoln eventually did sign the bill after having it on his desk for two days. He objected to the fact, though, that the local residents did not have the opportunity to weigh in on it. He believed that they should have that opportunity, and he was for gradual emancipation as well. So the fact that it was immediate didn't sit well with him, but he accepted it.

  • 12:15:10

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about D.C.'s first Emancipation Day, April 16, 1862. This is the 150th anniversary. Edna Medford is a professor of history and chairman of the Department of History at Howard University and co-author of "The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views." Kenneth Winkle is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-editor of Civil War Washington, an interactive website featuring maps and copies of primary documents describing life in the nation's capital during the Civil War.

  • 12:15:42

    NNAMDIIt's available at CivilWarDC.org. You can find a link at our website, kojoshow.org. Ken, these Emancipation Act documents have always existed and served as a resource for historians, those who could make it over to the National Archives. But you've been involved in digitizing these documents. Tell us about Civil War Washington.

  • 12:16:02

    WINKLEIt is an interdisciplinary collaborative project that looks at Washington and the District of Columbia from several perspectives, most important of which is the emancipation of the slaves in 1862. It is interactive. Users can go on to the site. They can search a map. They can look at documents and images. We try to present a well-rounded picture of what Washington and the District looked like during the Civil War and, more importantly, how it changed over the course of the war.

  • 12:16:42

    NNAMDIYou also built a map of D.C. with these records so people can see, as you pointed out, how it changed, where in the city different slaves and slaveholders lived. It sort of presents the city in a different light, doesn't it?

  • 12:16:56

    WINKLEIt provides much more detail, and it includes the stories of individuals, soldiers, doctors, sick and wounded patients in hospitals, slaves, the fugitives, the so-called contrabands from Virginia and Maryland. And it brings to life the history of the city, we think, in a way that it hasn't been done before.

  • 12:17:25

    NNAMDIAnd as I said earlier, you can find it at CivilWarDC.org with a link at our website, kojoshow.org. On to the telephones. We'll start with Pam in Alexandria, Va. Pam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:40

    PAMHi. How are you? I am curious to know if these moneys have been followed not in a detailed sense but in the sense to determine whether or not the people who were actually paid have been able to profit and that money has become a multigenerational issue that has been allowed to grow.

  • 12:18:01

    PAMAnd, you know, I know this is probably a ridiculous thought, but it would be great if it could be attached and somehow given to people who suffered as a result of slavery through some sort of community-based organization or something. But have they become profiteers? Has it become multigenerational money, and has it any of it been tracked?

  • 12:18:24

    NNAMDIEdna Medford, how closely have you been able to follow the money?

  • 12:18:29

    MEDFORDIt -- does your caller mean in terms of the payment, the compensation, or the people who actually held enslaved people to labor? 'Cause that's a different question.

  • 12:18:39


  • 12:18:40

    PAMWhat I mean is anybody who was able to profit as a result of receiving compensation, whether or not that money has become multigenerational?

  • 12:18:51

    MEDFORDWell, the problem was the compensation was not that great. The average was $300 per enslaved laborer who was freed. People were asking for much more than that, four times as much as what was usually given, and even more. I've seen evidence people asking for at least $3,000 for a laborer, and they...

  • 12:19:10

    NNAMDIWe'll get to that in a second, but go ahead.

  • 12:19:12

    MEDFORDYeah. But, no, they did not make a lot of money off of their enslaved laborers. But, of course, they made more than the enslaved person who got nothing but his freedom.

  • 12:19:23

    NNAMDIPam, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Mackie in Springfield, Va. Mackie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:31

    MACKIEYeah. Hi, Kojo. I always enjoy your topics. First of all, I wanted to know, when the first emancipation was signed, did all the Union states supported this bill? And also, my second question is, like, where did the slaves go? Did they get anything from the government? Did they get job replacement or, you know, housing...

  • 12:19:56

    NNAMDIOK. Ken Winkle, I'll put the first question to you. How did this vote go in Congress?

  • 12:20:01

    WINKLEThe vote supporting the bill was overwhelming. It was 29-14 in the Senate and 92-38 in the House. So most Northern representatives supported the bill. The opposition came from the border states and from some Democrats in the north.

  • 12:20:21

    NNAMDIAnd, Edna Medford, the second part of Mackie's question, where did the slaves go?

  • 12:20:27

    MEDFORDMany of them stayed right where they were. Some of them worked for their former owner. Some of them worked for the federal government because the military was here. Some of them left the area and went north, which was what the Northern Representatives were most concerned about as well.

  • 12:20:43

    NNAMDIMackie, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:20:46

    MACKIEAll right. Thanks, Kojo.

  • 12:20:47

    NNAMDIHere's Richard in Fairfax County, Va. Richard, your turn. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:53


  • 12:20:53

    NNAMDIHi, Richard. You're on the air.

  • 12:20:56

    RICHARDHi. I just read a article from The Washington Post, 1897, concerning one of my grandparents -- forefathers, I should say, and he made his living capturing slaves that have made it to D.C. and selling them back to their owners. I'm just wondering how prevalent that was at the time.

  • 12:21:14

    NNAMDIEdna Medford.

  • 12:21:15

    MEDFORDAbsolutely. There were slave captures all over. They would go into the northern states even after people had escaped, so, yes. Any getting to Washington, say, from Virginia or from Maryland or any other part of the south, people would have been very much afraid of being captured and returned to their owners because they were people who made their living doing that.

  • 12:21:39

    NNAMDIAnd apparently, Richard's ascendant -- his ancestor was one those individuals. Richard, it sounds like you owe me some money.

  • 12:21:48

    RICHARDWell, you know, it's just something that, you know, it's a shameful history of my -- of somebody in my family who actually lived at the old stone house at Fletchers Boat House. And my grandfather would tell me stories of them and how he would keep them in the basement. And when it was dilapidated before it became refurbished the Abner Cloud House, my brother and I broke in there and saw that there was chains in the basement in the cellar where you would hang a man from the wall. And that just verified my grandfather's story.

  • 12:22:21

    NNAMDIThank you...

  • 12:22:21

    RICHARDSo it's this little despicable thing that we try to overcome.

  • 12:22:25

    NNAMDIThanks a lot for doing that research and for sharing it with us. You have both, Edna Medford and Ken Winkle, dug deep into these documents. What are some of your more favorite or interesting stories? You mentioned the individual whose owner wanted $3,000 for him when the going rate was $300. Why did he want that much?

  • 12:22:46

    MEDFORDWell, the owners wanted as much as they could get. Slavery -- the D.C. Emancipation Act was not something that was approved by D.C. residents. They didn't have the ability to do that, but they certainly didn't favor it. And so they thought, OK, we have no way to stop this. We're going to get as much money out of this as we can. And so if we can get the government to pay $3,000, we're going to do it. But, of course, the government wasn't having any of that. So the man who felt that his labor was worth $3,000, really just got $600. But there were instances when...

  • 12:23:19

    NNAMDIBut this man, this laborer, was described as an engineer.

  • 12:23:23

    MEDFORDAn engineer, and then another, a blacksmith, so...

  • 12:23:26

    NNAMDIWhat did engineer mean in that context at that time?

  • 12:23:30

    MEDFORDOh, I am assuming that it's someone who is perhaps working with steam engines or something like that. It certainly -- I don't think it would've been associated with the train or anything. Someone doing that could have simply escaped. So it must've been someone who's working with machinery.

  • 12:23:45

    NNAMDIKen Winkle, any favorite stories you have after looking at these documents?

  • 12:23:50

    WINKLEWell, yes. Some slave owners did not request compensation because they did not want to give up their slaves. So to close that loophole, Congress passed a supplemental act that allowed slaves to petition for their own freedom. And there were over 150 of those petitions, and what makes them different and unique is that the slaves wrote the documents themselves. So we have their perspective as they are requesting their own freedom.

  • 12:24:27

    WINKLEAnd that freedom, when it was preempted, was uncompensated. So out of the compensated emancipation arose, at the very end, uncompensated emancipation. And that stopped the precedent for Lincoln's emancipation proclamation that he issued eight months later.

  • 12:24:50

    NNAMDIAnd, of course, that emancipation proclamation freed all slaves in Union controlled parts of the country at the time?

  • 12:24:57

    MEDFORDNo, no. Actually, and those areas still under control of the confederacy, so -- because he couldn't free the others, which, constitutionally, he could not.

  • 12:25:04

    NNAMDIOK. In case you're joining us, we're talking about the peculiar nature of D.C.'s emancipation on April 16, 1862. The interactive map on civilwardc.org also overlays the various forts, the hospitals around the city on top of an old map, and I was struck, Edna Medford, by just how encircled the city seemed to have been. When Lincoln was contemplating this -- some form of emancipation, he apparently was doing it in a city that is literally in a kind of wartime lockdown, correct?

  • 12:25:40

    MEDFORDAbsolutely. Keep in mind there's Virginia to the south. It's strictly confederate with the capital of the confederacy being Richmond. Maryland is still a part of the Union, but barely. Ostensibly, it's a part of the Union. But there are Marylanders who would have loved to have seceded, and the only reason why they did not was because Lincoln did not allow them to do that. So, yes, this was a city that was really almost under siege.

  • 12:26:06

    NNAMDIWhat's the history of celebrating Emancipation Day in D.C., Ken Winkle?

  • 12:26:13

    WINKLEWhen Congress passed the bill, the churches -- and there were 40 or more African-American churches in the District -- proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, and that was the next Sunday. And it was a few days after that that Lincoln actually signed the bill. Then the African-American community, centered on its churches, celebrated Emancipation Day on an annual basis ever since.

  • 12:26:44

    NNAMDIAnd, of course, in D.C., D.C. officially recognized Emancipation Day in 2005. It's long been celebrated, as Ken pointed out, in some way or form. But since, I guess, 2005, Emancipation Day has been a public holiday in the District.

  • 12:27:01

    MEDFORDAnd I think we really need to recognize the work of Loretta Carter Hanes, who is a force to be reckoned with. She's someone who almost singlehandedly brought this celebration back, and she's to be given a great deal of the credit for that.

  • 12:27:16

    NNAMDIAnd that's why if you are thinking of getting your driver's license renewed in the District of Columbia today, you will notice that the D.C. DMV is closed because this is a particular Emancipation Day in the nation, the Emancipation Day in the nation's capital 150 years starting from April 16, 1862. Edna Medford, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:27:36

    MEDFORDMy pleasure.

  • 12:27:38

    NNAMDIEdna Medford is a professor of history and chairman of the department of history at Howard University and co-author of "The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views." Kenneth Winkle, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:48

    WINKLEWell, thank you. I enjoyed talking.

  • 12:27:50

    NNAMDIKen Winkle is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-editor of Civil War Washington, an interactive website featuring maps and copies of primary documents describing life in the nation's capital during the Civil War. It's available at civilwardc.org. You can find the link at our website, kojoshow.org. When we come back, the culture and inspiration that gave rise to the music you're hearing in the background, the music of Bob Marley. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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