Today in 1862: Slavery abolished in District of Columbia

April 16, 2010

D.C. Emancipation Day celebration in 1866 (sketch by F. Dielman)Nine months before President Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation, he signed into law the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, which ended slavery in the nation’s capital. More than 3,100 slaves were freed immediately, and “loyal Unionist” masters were compensated up to $300 per freed slave (roughly $6,000 in today’s currency).

The District of Columbia in 1862 was a study in contrasts. Built on land that had been carved away from two slave-holding states (Maryland and Virginia), D.C. remained a center for slavery and the slave trade in the run-up to the Civil War.  At the same time, it was a hub of anti-slavery activity for abolitionists, including many former slaves who had earned their freedom or had it bequeathed to them. The 1860 census counted 11,131 “free colored” D.C. residents, almost 15% of the total population.

April 16 is now an official holiday in the District of Columbia, and residents continue to celebrate their own “Emancipation Day” with festivals and parades. Incidentally, this localized holiday is what caused the income tax filing deadline in 2006 to be pushed back to April 17 – and it’s set to happen again in 2012.