The D.C. Emancipation Day Moment
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. His signature 150 years ago freed 3,100 slaves within the nation's capital and pushed forward the arc of freedom for all African-Americans. It is still felt to this day -- especially this past week with D.C.'s sesquicentennial celebrations all around town.
Many of us began with a walk around the monuments at the National Mall, especially those of Lincoln and King, went to Frederick Douglass's home in Anacostia, Lincoln's Cottage at the Old Soldiers' Home, and concerts at Lincoln Theatre. On the holiday itself, many enjoyed a parade, speeches and fireworks at Freedom Plaza. There was a brunch at the Hamilton Restaurant and a party at Lincoln Restaurant. Many in the District government have been pushing for making the holiday bigger, especially Councilmember Vincent Orange. They deserve our thanks.
At Georgetown University, a April 17 commemorative program instructed on the history of blacks, Union soldiers and contraband camps near D.C. If the federals seized slaves as wartime contraband, they had the start of a chance for freedom. We have mostly forgotten such details, and even that of the nearby university's landmark tower, seen for miles around. It is named for Rev. Patrick Healy, S.J., Georgetown's president in the 1870s, born of a bi-racial slave and Irish father. The young Healy would have been considered a slave except that his father send him north for his schooling.
These are stories that need to be re-told. We need to sing the African-American hymns anew as well. At one Sunday event, a black preacher said that some of us need to "break the bondage of slavery in our minds." We have heard that before but it needs to be said again.
"We got to figure out ways to own this emancipation," said Rev. Raymond Kemp, moderator of the Georgetown commemoration, where Mayor Vincent Gray also spoke. To that and all the other salutes to struggle and freedom, we say, "Amen."