Wednesday, April 13, 2005

One hundred forty-three years ago this Saturday, church bells and fancy dress balls were the order of the day as Washingtonians celebrated the end of slavery in the District of Columbia. For years afterward, parades, programs, and other celebrations were a particular rite of spring and affirmation for black Washingtonians.

That’s D.C. Emancipation (1862), not the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).

“It was such a unique situation,” says Council member Vincent Orange, who sponsored the legislation establishing April 16 as a public holiday in celebration of D.C. emancipation. “It actually anticipated Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by nine months.”

So you never knew about those Emancipation Day parades, which involved thousands and wended their way along the city’s major thoroughfares? You never knew that a cemetery on Benning Road contains some of the leading black citizens of post-Civil War Washington? Did you know that Abraham Lincoln retreated to a small cottage north of the White House to work on his own Emancipation Proclamation?

These and other stories are part of the nation’s capital’s other history, hidden to some, but always obvious to others.

Things will become a little more apparent after this weekend, with a host of events planned to celebrate Emancipation Day and the presentation of Walking Town, a series of 55 tours into all corners of the city, with several designed to highlight neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

“We wanted to showcase the entire city as a cultural community,” says Kathy Smith, outgoing director of Cultural Tourism DC, a coalition of 140 cultural and arts organizations from every part of the city, which is coordinating the Walking Town project.

“Eighteen to twenty million people come every year to the National Mall and never find the city.”

• • •

That wasn’t always the case. From 1866 until the turn of the 20th century, District residents and tourists alike celebrated D.C. Emancipation with an annual parade, which took marchers into the heart of official Washington and its neighborhoods. National newspapers like Harper’s Weekly routinely covered the event, which had thousands of Washingtonians, black and white, lining the streets.

“Parades are part of the African notion of special days of celebration,” says Maurice Jackson, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. “The parade tradition expresses the overall desire for freedom and unity within the African American community. It says, ‘This is our right and we celebrate it.’”

The scale and scope of the parades suggests how organized Washington’s black community had become by the Civil War, even when it was confronted by tens of thousands of migrants streaming up from the South, says Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, professor of history at Howard University, director of its Public History Program and editor of “First Freed: Washington, DC, in the Emancipation Era.”

“Parades became important for African Americans on several levels,” says Mrs. Clark-Lewis. “They were determined to express African American unity as they moved through the thoroughfares of the city.”

Divisions within the black community, along with stepped-up white racism as a result of Jim Crow laws, halted the parades at the turn of the century.

“This was the time of some disagreement within the black community about how to go about affecting changes,” Mr. Jackson says. “Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were having their debates.”

In the meantime, the generation that remembered the fight for D.C. emancipation had largely died off, and there was some dissension among descendants about financing and organizing the parades.

Those who remained were also forced to deal with new social and economic constraints, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), effectively legitimized segregation.

In 1899, after a few incidents of rowdy behavior by spectators, the D.C. Public Schools ended the practice of closing the black schools so its students could enjoy the parade. The parades finally petered out altogether in 1901.

Yet even after the parade was discontinued, black Washingtonians continued to celebrate D.C. Emancipation in schools and churches around the city.

“A large number of celebrations continued to be part of the African American community,” says Mrs. Clark-Lewis. “There were significant programs in churches and schools, sororities and fraternities. Within African American descendants there was a continuity.”

• • •

It was a continuity of community activism that began in the decades before emancipation. From the very beginning, the black community established churches, schools, and other institutions often in the face of white racism and the concerted opposition of the white community. Some of these early institutions and their descendants can be seen as part of the Walking Town tours.

Churches like Asbury United Methodist (1836), still at its 19th-century location at 11th and K streets NW, or Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgetown, which began in 1820, served as educational and social centers as well as religious ones.

“Churches were central to black Washingtonians’ political and social activity before and after emancipation,” writes Paul Phillips Cooke in “First Freed.”

Much of the impetus for abolition from those who called Washington home came from the leaders of established black institutions, like churches and schools.

“They were absolutely tireless,” says Mrs. Clark-Lewis, who has reviewed petitions and other resolutions that were presented to the president and Congress by members of Washington’s black community. “President Lincoln and some others were not prepared for the level of agitation.”

• • •

During the first half of the 19th century, Washington was nearly unique among Southern cities in its large population of free black people, who began to outnumber enslaved persons as early as 1830, according to U.S. census figures — which showed 3,129 free blacks and 2,330 enslaved. By 1860, 11,131 free blacks lived in a city of 75,080 souls. Just over 3,100 people were enslaved.

The Civil War brought great changes to white Washington, not the least of which was a more open-minded approach to prominent white abolitionists, writes historian James McPherson in “The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

Always important symbolically for abolitionists, who had managed to incorporate an end to the District’s slave trade as part of the Compromise of 1850, the nation’s capital was now important strategically in the effort to win the war.

“There was a serious question as to what would happen to the Union if Britain withdrew its support,” says Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. “There was a lot of British pressure on the U.S. to end slavery.”

Although his views on emancipation would evolve as the Civil War unfolded, Abraham Lincoln himself was at first opposed to immediate abolition. His March 6, 1862, annual message to Congress called for a joint resolution that would endorse gradual emancipation only. For many in Washington’s black community, Congress offered the best hope of immediate action.

Why Congress? Thank the U.S. Constitution, which in Article I gave Congress authority over the District of Columbia. Although it is much decried today, it was in fact the unique relationship between Congress and the District that allowed the former to take charge of this early emancipation.

The actual bill was proposed March 29, 1862. Two weeks later, Bishop Daniel A. Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church met with President Lincoln urging him to sign the bill. Lincoln complied two days later on April 16, signing the bill into law.

“I trust I am not dreaming,” wrote Frederick Douglass to Charles Sumner in April of 1862 (as quoted in James McPherson’s “The Negro’s Civil War”), “but the events taking place seem like a dream.”

• • •

D.C. Emancipation was significantly different from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing people in the states then in rebellion, leaving those in the loyal border states enslaved.

For one thing, it was the only example of compensated emancipation in the nation, with $1 million earmarked to compensate slaveholders and $100,000 to provide for the “colonization” of formerly enslaved people who wished to emigrate.

The intended destination was the west coast of Africa, where the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 (with Francis Scott Key a founding member), had established a colony that was to be a haven for newly freed black people — and that in 1847 became the nation of Liberia. About 12,000 eventually emigrated there.

It is important to note, Mrs. Clark-Lewis says, that most antislavery whites were hardly in favor of full equality for black people and believed that the best way to deal with a free black population was to send them elsewhere.

Despite the support of some black leaders, among them Martin Delany and Washington’s own Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, who became pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in 1864, most freed blacks seemed to prefer to stay in the United States. Frederick Douglass, for one, was strongly opposed to the idea of colonization.

So that provision went nowhere. The “compensation” provision, however, was another story. Compensation was the sugar to help abolition go down, although slaveholders squawked that the amount due them, about $300 on average, was hardly enough.

• • •

The compensation drama played itself out all across the city but brought particularly dramatic change to the area now known as Deanwood, in far Northeast, a neighborhood that still proclaims its rural roots. It’s one of the neighborhoods featured in this weekend’s Walking Town.

“Deanwood is among the oldest African American residential communities,” says Mrs. Smith of Cultural Tourism DC. “If you go there, you’ll hear a story about how people persevered.”

There the old Sheriff farm and adjacent properties owned by the Lowrie, Benning, and Dean families raised hogs, cattle, fruit, corn, rye, and vegetables. All depended on slave labor — during the Civil War black Methodists built their own meeting house after being locked out of their former building by its pro-slavery owner — and all were compensated for losing it.

But emancipation deprived these farms of their labor source, and by 1871 many of the larger landholders had sold their properties to developers.

By the early 20th century, Deanwood was a black enclave that functioned as a small town on the edge of the city, lived in by people with rural roots who kept chickens in the yard and drew their water from the nearest stream.

It was also home to one of the more prominent educational institutions for black women in the country, the National Training School for Women and Girls. Founded by Nannie Helen Burroughs in 1909, the school continues today as an elementary co-educational private institution.

During the 1920s and ‘30s, black Washingtonians enjoyed an amusement park, Suburban Gardens, located just across the street from the school.

• • •

Not scheduled for Walking Town, but for a tour later this summer, is the Lincoln cottage, now under development as a museum and interpretive center by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

How much Lincoln’s own plan for emancipation was influenced by the one in the District is debatable. We do know, however, that Lincoln spent much of his time in the months that followed drafting the proclamation at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home (now the Armed Forces Retirement Home) in Northwest.

Even without the Lincoln cottage, there’s plenty to see on this weekend’s tours. You can stroll U Street, meander through Brookland, and walk through downtown and Capitol Hill on a Walking Town tour. Wherever you go, guides will have fliers detailing what else you can do in the neighborhood.

“The tours go to places that some people consider out of the way,” says Mrs. Smith. “We want to talk about what made those places unique and what gives them meaning.”

You’ll also have a chance to meet some of the people for whom the history and allure of the neighborhoods they live in and places they know have neither been hidden nor forgotten.

Community activist Eugene Kinlow, for example, grew up in Bellevue, which has two tours scheduled for this weekend.

“We want to get people walking, not just from other neighborhoods, but people from this neighborhood,” says Mr. Kinlow. “This is not a ‘bad part of town.’ ”

Other community leaders will be leading tours through Old Anacostia, laid out in 1854 as the whites-only suburb of Uniontown. Frederick Douglass, a frequent attendee on Emancipation Day platforms, moved here after the Union Land Company went bankrupt in 1873.

With its winding roads, frame houses, and backyard gardens, Anacostia today preserves something of its small-town air. Downtown Anacostia still sports what was once billed as the “world’s largest chair,” built in 1958 for the Curtis Brothers’ furniture company, a major employer in the neighborhood.

“Many people who don’t go east of the river think of all of it as Anacostia,” says Mrs. Smith. “But there are scores of individual neighborhoods in wards seven and eight.” Adjacent to Anacostia is Barry Farms, bought by the Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction, which enabled black Washingtonians to buy their own homes on one-acre lots at low cost. By 1869, just 59 of the 359 lots in the newly platted neighborhood were unsold.

Radiating outward from Anacostia are the newer communities of Randle Highlands and Congress Heights, suburbs that connected to downtown along the streetcar lines.

Didn’t know the streetcar came out this way? That’s worth a trip itself, as well as the stories of the people and places along the way. After all, the intersection of the hidden and the obvious is a great place to start walking.

Three days of events

The renewed celebration of D.C. Emancipation and its parade is largely the work of one person — Washingtonian Loretta Carter Hanes. Beginning in the early 1980s, Mrs. Hanes delved into the history of the long-dormant tradition and began to pressure city leaders to bring it back.

The parade itself was revived in 2002. And now that D.C. Emancipation Day is an official holiday, there’s much more to go with it, all culminating in a grand display of fireworks. Here’s a guide:


• Emancipation Day Golf Tournament: Langston Golf Course, 2651 Benning Road NE. $175 to play. 7 a.m. 202/832-9583.

• Emancipation Day Reception: City Museum, 801 K St. NW. The annual fete honors James Horton, professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University. The first, second, and third place winners of the DCPS Emancipation Day contest will also be honored. 6 p.m. 202/727-6076.

Tomorrow and Saturday

• ‘Lifting as We Climb: From Emancipation to Segregation’: Symposium on the life of civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell. Howard University, Blackburn Center, 2397 Sixth St. NW. 6:30-8:30 p.m. April 15, 9 a.m.-3:45 p.m. April 16. 202/806-4771.


• Wreath laying: Lincoln Park, East Capitol Street between 11th and 13th streets NE. 10 a.m.

• Bells in celebration: Old Post Office Building, 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Ringing of the U.S. Congressional Bells in honor of the emancipation of Washington’s 3,100 former enslaved persons. 11 a.m. 202/606-8691.

• Emancipation Day parade:Pennsylvania Avenue between Fourth and 14th streets NW. Council member Vincent Orange is grand marshal. Steps off at 11 a.m.

• Program: Freedom Plaza, Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW. Poets, choirs, dancers and other ensembles. 2 p.m.

• Concert: Freedom Plaza, Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th streets NW. Features the District’s own Raheem DeVaughn and local recording artist Groove Stu. 5:30 p.m.

• Fireworks: Pennsylvania Avenue NW near Freedom Plaza. 8:15 p.m.


• Ecumenical Worship Service: Simpson-Hamlin United Methodist Church, 4501 16th St. NW. 11 a.m. — Lisa Rauschart

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams with a wave of his hat as he rides a carrige in the Emancipation Day Parade on Pennsylvannia Ave., NW, Friday, April 16, 2004. Seated behind him is Frederick Douglass IV.( Joseph Silverman / The Washington Times )

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams with a wave of his hat as he rides a carrige in the Emancipation Day Parade on Pennsylvannia Ave., NW, Friday, April 16, 2004. Seated behind him is Frederick Douglass IV.( Joseph Silverman / The Washington Times )


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