Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.

Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C.

Date Observed: April 16
Location: Washington, D.C.

Emancipation Day celebrates the freedom of more than 3,000 slaves in the District of Columbia on April 16. On that date in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed enslaved persons in the District nine months before the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The day became an official holiday in Washington, D.C., in 2005.

Historical Background

The District of Columbia Emancipation Act of 1862 freed all slaves in the District and granted compensation of up to $300 for each slave to loyal Unionist slaveholders. The law also provided $100 to each former slave who voluntarily left the United States for colonies in Africa.

The proposal that African Americans emigrate to Africa had been argued since the 1700s by both blacks and whites. The American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1816. Made up primarily of prominent white men, the ACS persuaded some black leaders to promote the cause. They contended that blacks could succeed in Africa but could not in America.

A small number of African Americans did emigrate to west Africa and settle in a colony named Liberia on land that the ACS purchased. However, most African Americans were opposed to colonization plans. They believed that America was their country, a nation they had helped build and for which they had fought and died. This attitude prevailed when the 1862 Emancipation Act passed, and the majority of former slaves did not emigrate. Yet colonization proposals continued, and evolved into the Back-to-Africa movement in the 1900s (see also Marcus Garvey's Birthday).

Creation of the Holiday

The first Emancipation Day celebration in Washington, D.C., was held in 1866. More than 5,000 marchers wound through downtown and stopped at Franklin Square for speeches. Over 10,000 spectators were part of the event. A parade was held thereafter each year until 1901, when it was discontinued due to lack of leadership and funds to sponsor activities.

In 2002, D.C. Councilman Vincent B. Orange Sr. introduced a bill to make Emancipation Day a legal public holiday in the District. He and others believed the day should be memorialized, and it became an official public holiday in 2005.


The first observance as a public holiday took place over the weekend of April 14 through April 17, 2005. A parade and festival commemorated this event, which also included Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866. step shows, poets, choirs, and a variety of activities for children. One of the celebrities in attendance was Frederick Douglass IV, the great-great-grandson of the famous abolitionist who was partly responsible for persuading President Lincoln to abolish slavery in the nation's capital (see also Frederick Douglass Day).

Contacts and Web Sites

District of Columbia Emancipation Day Foundation 4101 South Dakota Ave., N.E. Washington, DC 20017 202-529-4833

"Emancipation Day" District of Columbia Mayor's Office John A. Wilson Bldg. 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20004 202-727-1000

Franklin Square/Emancipation Day Parade

"Treasures of Congress," an online exhibit at the National Archives and Records Administration 8601 Adelphi Rd. College Park, MD 20740 866-272-6272

Further Reading

Blight, David W. "Emancipation." In The African-American Experience: Selections from the Five-Volume Macmillan Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History , edited by Jack Salzman. New York: Macmillan, 1998. Leonnig, Carol D. "Celebrating the Day Freedom Arrived." Washington Post, April 17, 2005.