Maybe We Don't Celebrate DC's Emancipation Day Because We're Not Actually Free

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Today, April 16, marks the date 158 years ago, when Washington, D.C., became the only American jurisdiction to end slavery by paying $1 million in ransom to slaveholders to free the 3,100 people enslaved in the nation’s capital.


This holiday may be D.C.’s best kept secret. Public commemorations have been shrinking every year. Perhaps we prefer not to remember or celebrate the city’s emancipation because D.C. is still not free. There is the ongoing disenfranchisement of D.C. residents, who are denied statehood. And there is the disgraceful way the United States treats District of Columbia citizens going to, and returning home from prison—the 13th Amendment loophole that keeps slavery alive to this day.

D.C.’s head start on emancipation was crucial in making it a black city. President Lincoln’s Civil War-time decree was issued nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation applied to the rest of the country. D.C.’s Emancipation Act made the District boundary a line of freedom for enslaved people fleeing Maryland, Virginia and beyond.

Tens of thousands of formerly enslaved people poured into the city limits in the years after. Institutions such as the Freedmen’s Bureau, Freedmen’s Hospital, and Howard University were created. During the Civil War and the civil rights movement, D.C. became a national Black Power center, as Asch and Musgrove recount in their book, Chocolate City.

After more than a century of official silence from local and federal officials, then-Councilman Vincent B. Orange revived the holiday in the early 2000s. He brought back the parades along Pennsylvania Avenue, to the important audience at the White House. Since Orange left office in 2016, Pennsylvania Avenue has been closed down to the public in front of the White House, and the holiday has been squeezed smaller and smaller.

Last year, D.C.’s Emancipation Day celebration was folded into the Cherry Blossom Festival. The day has slipped off the margins of history.

As a D.C. resident, I am appalled that my children enjoy their days “off” school without any official commemorations of the reasons why. History gives us power. Researching my last book, I came across digitized slavery records that allowed me to see who owned my Guyanese ancestors. I was able to calculate exactly how much money the British Parliament paid a fellow named Hopkinson in ransom to free my ancestors but never paid my ancestors a dime. Remembering this history makes it easy to calculate reparations—the debts owed.


D.C. residents have access to similar online records. You can see that the federal government paid John A. Smith $5,146.50 to free 14 enslaved workers laboring on his 150-acre farm, “The Hill,” the grounds of present-day Howard University where I teach. In my D.C. neighborhood Bloomingdale, I can find the “inventory list” for the freed enslaved people that worked the estate called “Bloomingdale” owned by the Beale family. Seeing the names of these human beings who toiled in bondage in view of the U.S. Capitol and that the federal government paid to free helps me feel rooted in the ground I walk across on a daily basis.

The story of D.C.’s so-called “emancipation” also runs through the latest chapter, mass incarceration. This story is actively being sanitized. In the current issue of the Washingtonian magazine, now on newsstands (at the time of publication, the story wasn’t online), there is a feature about a new housing development outside Washington in Virginia’s Fairfax County called “Liberty Crest.”


Housing units are selling at a brisk pace on the land where the Lorton Reformatory once sat. When Lorton was first erected in 1910, it was designed as a model of prison reform. But by the late 1990s, as the federal government took control of D.C. amid a financial crisis, President Bill Clinton signed a law to federalize D.C.’s criminal justice system. The law closed Lorton and dispersed incarcerated people in federal prisons across the United States.

D.C., once again, became exceptional. To this day, Washington, D.C., is the only place where if you do a local crime, you do federal time. Incarcerated D.C. citizens are dispersed to federal prisons across the United States. With the impending closure of the halfway house Hope Village, D.C. is now faced with having no place for returned citizens. These Washingtonians have served time in far-flung places away from their families across the United States. Now that they have paid their debts to society, there will be no place for them to come home.


The new museum, located near the “Liberty Market” erected on the former Lorton campus, appears to have forgotten this ongoing loophole to freedom afforded by way of the 13th Amendment. According to the Washingtonian, this museum focuses on the little-known role Lorton Reformatory played in achieving women’s suffrage. The article is completely silent about D.C.’s ongoing lack of freedom, making the housing development’s name of “Liberty Crest,” a mockery and a lie.

Just because they will forget, doesn’t mean we have to. To remember the savagery of what is happening to black people across the globe is to acknowledge the layers and layers, the deep historical roots of the inequalities that brought us here. It means remembering the racism that is baked into each America brick, that infects each stream and drop of air we breathe.
Remembering also means pulling out a calculator to count the debts that keep racking up.


Natalie Hopkinson is the Washington-based author, most recently, of A Mouth is Always Muzzled. Follow her on Twitter, and join her at 12-1 p.m. on April 16 for a discussion, First Freed, First Forgotten with a live stream panel of Howard University scholars: Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Lisa Crooms-Robinson and Greg Carr at Howard University Graduate School.


Murry Chang

And DC residents are still, somehow, totally screwed with having a voice in the federal government.