DemDaily: Commemorating Emancipation Day

April 17, 2023

Today recognizes Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C., commemorating President Abraham Lincoln's April 16, 1862 signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed more than 3000 slaves in the District of Columbia.

The Act, which came nearly nine months before slaves were declared emancipated in the South, made D.C. the first to free slaves in the United States -- although not without a literal cost.

It ended ended slavery in the nation's capital by providing compensation for slave "owners" who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for the "loss of property" of each freed slave. Freed men and women who chose to voluntarily colonize to locations outside the US were offered payments of up to $100 for emigrating.

Although the US government did not extend the compensated emancipation model beyond the District, the arrangement signaled the demise of slavery and opened the door to full freedom of approximately four million slaves after the American Civil War.

On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation which required all states to abandon slavery within 100 days, and on January 1, 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

The institution of slavery, however, still existed in Union border states that did not declare secession from the Union and did not join the Confederacy.

To end the practice of slavery, it took Union soldiers riding through the South to enforce an order many slaves did not know existed. Texas was the most remote, and the last holdout, finally freeing the quarter-million slaves residing in the state.

"Juneteenth" is a combination of "June" and "nineteenth," the day, in 1865, when Union soldiers announced in Galveston, Texas that all previously enslaved people were free -- more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Following the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, "slavery and involuntary servitude" were formally prohibited under the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

The amendment, pushed through Congress by Lincoln in February 1865, was finally ratified by the requisite three-fourths of states on December 6, 1865 -- eight months after his assassination.

Although Emancipation Day has been a public holiday in D.C. since 2005, and is commemorated in a dozen states and territories on the date when emancipation occurred within their borders, the end of slavery is recognized nationally on June 19.

H.R.1320, establishing Juneteenth Independence Day as a federal holiday, was signed into law by President Joe Biden in June 2021.

May this Emancipation Day be a reminder of the courage and sacrifice of those who fought to make individual freedom a reality, and of the ongoing struggle to ensure the right of all people to be treated equally.

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