Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on Wednesday said D.C. workers can celebrate Emancipation Day, but the city doesn’t need to pay for it - a reversal of his stance in 2004, when as a council member he voted to authorize the paid holiday.
“Emancipation Day is a day that you absolutely should recognize and highlight, but not a day where we need to fund people to have a day off,” Mr. Fenty told The Washington Times on Wednesday, adding that he had no plans to revisit the decision.
Officials say Mr. Fenty’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal introduced last month includes a plan that can help the District save $1.3 million by eliminating the April 16 public holiday, which marks when Abraham Lincoln freed 3,100 slaves in the District in 1862 - about nine months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Under the plan, city employees no longer get a paid holiday or receive extra pay for working.
As a council member representing Ward 4 in 2004, when legislation was passed to give city workers a paid day off to observe the holiday, Mr. Fenty voted “Yes.”
Asked Wednesday what has changed, Fenty officials cited budget pressures and pointed to spending plan documents that note city employees earned more than $1.8 million in holiday premium pay for working on Emancipation Day last year.
“The proposal preserves the spirit and integrity of this important day, while allowing critical District services like trash collection, DMV operations and District regulatory services to resume for residents across the District,” Fenty spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.
Still, revoking the paid holiday has upset D.C. Council members, community leaders and organizers of the city’s annual Emancipation Day celebrations.
“This country’s history is inextricably tied to slavery,” said Lawrence Guyot, a longtime D.C. resident and civil rights activist. “To end Emancipation Day would be an affront to all Americans, particularly to the descendants of slaves.”
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, said he would try to strip the proposal from the budget during the council’s consideration of the spending plan.
“I think it’s a huge mistake,” Mr. Thomas said. “I think it’s a disrespect to a very important holiday that highlights a very critical chapter in the history of African-Americans in the United States.”
The Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 abolished slavery in the District, making the city the first in the country where people were freed from bondage.
The first Emancipation Day parade in the District was held after the Civil War. It became an annual tradition until 1901, when organizers disagreed about the parade’s logistics, but resumed in 2002.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams in January 2005 signed legislation to make April 16 an official holiday in the District.
“Creating this holiday will help to make this day of remembrance a permanent part of the District’s civic culture and an appropriate celebration of those who sacrificed in fighting slavery,” Mr. Williams said at the time.
Other community activists who take exception to Mr. Fenty’s proposal said that eliminating the paid holiday would erode Emancipation Day’s importance.
“Our history is vital to us,” said Anise Jenkins, president of Stand Up for Democracy in DC Coalition and an organizer of Thursday’s Emancipation Day parade at Franklin Square in Northwest. “Emancipation Day is an achievement that Washingtonians should celebrate. It is the result of our ancestors’ stride toward freedom.”
Ayo Handy, founder and director of the African American Holiday Association, linked the celebration of Emancipation Day with her aim of achieving statehood for the District.
“We’re still not free until we free D.C.,” Ms. Handy said, adding that the mayor’s plan “lacks vision.”
Mr. Fenty has a mixed record observing the parade.
In 2007, his first year as mayor, he combined the procession with a voting rights march to the Capitol that was marred by cold weather and snow flurries and overshadowed by news of the Virginia Tech massacre.
In 2008, a similar voting rights march scheduled for Emancipation Day was canceled because it coincided with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the city.
The District is not the only jurisdiction in the nation to offer a paid holiday to government workers in honor of the emancipation of the slaves.
Texas sets aside June 19 to recognize when slave families in Galveston were freed in 1865. While Juneteenth is a paid holiday in Texas, 28 other states recognize it as an unpaid holiday.