Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day

Today is Emancipation Day, an official public holiday in D.C. to mark the anniversary of the signing of The District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, or simply, The Compensated Emancipation Act.

In 1849, when he was still a Congressman, Abraham Lincoln introduced a plan to eliminate slavery in D.C. through compensated emancipation, but the bill failed. More than a decade later, in December of 1861, another bill was introduced in Congress for the abolition of slavery in D.C. After passing both the House and the Senate, President Abraham Lincoln signed The Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, ending slavery in the nation’s capital. The Act freed 3,100 individuals, reimbursed those who had legally owned them and offered the newly freed men and women money to emigrate.  However, the Act only affected slavery in D.C., and slavery throughout the country did not officially end until after the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 until 1865.

Five days after slavery ended throughout the United States when the American Civil War was drawing to a close with General Robert E. Lee surrendering to General Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln was shot while watching a play with his wife at Ford’s Theatre in D.C. on the night of April 14, 1865.  He died early the next morning, which was 149 years ago, at The Petersen House across the street from the theater.

Based on the passage of the Act, April 16 is now celebrated annually in the city as an official public holiday in D.C.  However, by law, when April 16 falls during a weekend, Emancipation Day is observed on the nearest weekday.  Each year, a series of activities are held during the holiday including a traditional Emancipation Day parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd Street and 14th Street in northwest D.C.

The holiday is also celebrated in other areas of the United States as well as many former British colonies in the Caribbean on various dates in observance of the emancipation of slaves of African origin.

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