A depiction of Emancipation Day celebrations in Washington D.C.
Wikimedia Commons

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, will be observed Friday, April 15, this year (since April 16, the actual anniversary date, falls 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. It was an important day in the history of American liberty.

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And it was largely due to an unlikely figure, a former shoemaker from Massachusetts. And yes, history buffs, 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.

In May 1836, Henry Wilson, a young shoemaker from Massachusetts, was visiting the city of Washington, D.C., and took a walk to the section of the city where several slave pens were located. Seeing Williams Slave Pen (where almost five years later, a kidnapped free black man named Solomon Northup was confined), he was horrified by the conditions in which the enslaved were housed. He heard their moans and was haunted enough by them that when he returned home, he soon joined the anti-slavery movement. As time went on he entered politics, and was eventually elected a United States senator.

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Though previous efforts had been made to eliminate slavery in the District of Columbia, it was a bill introduced by Sen. 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.

The bill was debated in the Senate over the course of several days. Noah Brooks, in an 1895 book titled Washington in Lincoln’s Time, recounts that “a great many decent-looking and intelligent-appearing colored men thronged to the Senate to hear what the speakers had to say.” The Senate passed it by a vote of 29-6.

The House of Representatives considered the bill in April, and it also passed there, 92 voting in favor and 38 against.

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Having passed both houses of Congress, the bill was sent to President Lincoln. Although some pro-slavery advocates predicted that he would veto it (Lincoln did express some concerns that the bill’s progress was too hasty, and also had thoughts relating to how the compensation amounts would be determined), Lincoln signed the bill into law April 16, 1862.

Many slave owners had anticipated this. 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.

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The National Republican newspaper hoped that Lincoln would speedily sign the legislation because “every hour [of delay] commits an additional fellow being to slavery.”

One writer witnessed, at 6 a.m. on the day Lincoln signed the measure, a wagonload of enslaved, mostly women, being led out of the city by a white man. “The wailing of the women will not soon be forgotten by those who heard it,” he wrote.

The still-legal slave pens in Baltimore were reportedly filled with relocated servants, and the Southern sections of Maryland were also destinations for slaveholders looking to beat the emancipation deadline. In 1863, Col. William Birney was ordered to use his regiment of black soldiers to free people being held in a Baltimore pen, and after completing that task, he reported that numerous individuals who’d been locked up there were from Washington and should have been emancipated under the act of Congress. Some slaves were removed after the deadline. The National Republican reported as a “notorious fact” that “slaves have disappeared from here … since the bill went into effect.”

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Regrettably, many slaves who would have gained their freedom had their servitude extended. Most probably remained enslaved until the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery for good.

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).

If the slaves could not be brought before the commission (some black men, for example, had already hooked up with the Union Army and were not available for evaluation), the value of the slaves could be asserted by additional evidence from witnesses.

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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.

Noah Brooks described the crowd of former slave owners as they lined up, in January 1863, to get their payments. He witnessed some 300 claimants lined up at the Treasury Department. Each would give his name to a clerk, who would look up the person’s claim number. A cashier would find the check with the corresponding number, have the claimant sign a receipt and hand over the check. Next, the check was taken to the U.S. treasurer, another signature was requested and the check was approved to be paid out by the Sub-Treasury. In this lackluster way, the vestiges of slavery disappeared from our nation’s capital.

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Several days were spent processing claims in this manner. In the end, the amount of compensation paid out was less than the $1 million that Congress had appropriated for this purpose. No doubt the expense of compensation would have been more, had not (as one newspaper observed) so many able-bodied (and therefore more valuable) slaves been spirited out of the city just before or after the law took effect.

David Fiske is a freelance writer in upstate New York. He co-authored Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave and is the author of the recent book Solomon Northup's Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens Before the Civil War.