In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed all slaves in the District of Colombia on April 16th 1862, a panel of history professors and local civil rights advocates discussed the history of emancipation in D.C. and slavery’s legacy in American politics on Tuesday morning. Although each speaker celebrated emancipation day as a victory for human rights, each was sure to remind the audience that freedom is an ongoing struggle.
“Emancipation is an ongoing process, and we still have a long way to go,” started the event’s moderator, Rev. Ray Kemp. “1862 is not that far away. We have to find some way to own this emancipation.”
Kemp went on to discuss his own work as a civil rights advocate in D.C. and how he, in synecdoche for the country as a whole, had to come to grips with his ancestor’s role as slave-owners.
To give a historical perspective of D.C.’s role in national emancipation, Professor of History Chandra Manning told stories of the contraband phenomenon. During the civil war, Union General Benjamin Butler refused to torn over escaped slaves under the fugitive slave act, citing that war gave him the authority to seize enemy property. To house the runaway “contraband,” contraband camps were constructed wherever union soldiers stopped–there were two in D.C. and more in the surrounding area.
Although conditions in the contraband camps varied, their presence weakened slaveholder’s grasp because they provided safe havens for escaped slaves, explained Manning. More importantly for emancipation, the camps, especially those around D.C. put former slaves in direct contact with union solders who started to advocate for emancipation as a wartime goal.
Maurice Jackson, also a History Professor, summarized the place of blacks in modern D.C. In the 1950s, the restrictive covenants that determined where blacks couldn’t live in the city were removed, and in 1957, the city was the only major American city with a black majority. In 1970, 71 percent of the city was black; now it is under 50 percent, according to Jackson.
“Yet we know that many black folk who were born in this city and who moved here for a better life can no longer afford to live here,” Jackson said.”
Also, D.C. currently has an income gap between whites and blacks of over $60,000, with the average white household earning $101,000 and the average black household earning $39,000, according to Jackson. Finally, Jackson quoted Frederick Douglas: “The negro is not yet abolished as a degraded class.”
Finally, Mayor Vincent Gray spoke, comparing emancipation to D.C. statehood. “My message today is not that we just want to celebrate the freedom 150 years ago of 3100 slaves. How about freeing the 618,000 in the District of Columbia in bondage today? How about giving u the same rights that everybody else has.”
Photo: Lucia He