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Civil War Washington, DC: Looking for Emancipation in the Shadow of Liberty

Written by Jen J., Museum Educator


April marks the sesquicentennial of the passage of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. Abraham Lincoln passed the law on April 16, 1862 nine months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Act freed 3,100 slaves in the District of Columbia and represents the federal government’s first attempt to free individuals enslaved in the United States.

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the Capital’s long history of slavery and quests for emancipation. Most envision Washington, DC as the seat American democracy and the spiritual embodiment of the Nation’s founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, as historian John Hope Franklin stated, for almost a century Washington, DC was "the very seat and center of the slave trade."

Since the federal district’s creation in 1790, slavery and the slave trade flourished in the Capital. The city’s geographic location along the Potomac River made the sale and shipment of slaves relatively easy and extremely profitable. As a result, pens for holding the enslaved were common sights throughout the district and were visible from the Capitol and the White House. In addition, slaves were commonly seen working on docks and in hotels, homes, and restaurants.

The Compensated Emancipation Act ended this firmly rooted system of slavery in Washington, DC. The Act would ultimately affect the Civil War, alter Washington, D.C. society, and influence abolitionists’ quests for freedom throughout the United States. The Act’s success demonstrated that emancipation was something that could become a reality.

On April 14, 2012, NMAAHC will host the FREE educator workshop, Civil War Washington, DC: Looking for Emancipation in the Shadow of Liberty. It will be held from 9:00 am to 3:30 pm and investigate slavery in Washington, DC, its impact on the Civil War, and the struggle for emancipation. Participants will spend a day with scholars Mary Kay Ricks (author of Escape on The Pearl) and Kate Masur (author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.) discussing the principles and challenges of emancipation and the war’s impact on the nation’s capital. Participants will also visit three sites related to the history of slavery in DC and Virginia.

To register, send your name, email, and mailing address and contact phone number to The event is free but seats are limited.

A view of the Lincoln Memorial.