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–by Allie Swislocki

Today marks the 150 year anniversary of a very important date, especially for us living here in the District of Columbia. It is the sesquicentennial of the day that the slaves in D.C. were freed through an act of Congress. It should also be noted that the D.C. slave owners could apply for compensation for their emancipated slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the rebellious Southern states, did not go into effect until January 1, 1863. President Lincoln issued his ultimatum to the South on September 22, 1862 (five months after the District freed its slaves), giving them until the first of the next year to return to the Union or he would outlaw slavery below the Mason-Dixon Line. By passing the legislation, Congress made D.C. the second state or territory to outlaw slavery: Pennsylvania had abolished it in 1850. All other free states had come into the United States that way. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, officially outlawing slavery across the entire United States, did not go into effect until December 1865.

The residents of Washington, D.C. are very proud of this claim to fame—the slaves here in the District were freed over three years before slavery was officially outlawed nationwide. Congress recognized this complicated history of slavery in D.C. when it named one of the most-visited rooms in the Capitol Complex. When you tour the Capitol, your first stop will be at the Capitol Visitor Center, in the main atrium. Walk down the main staircase, turn and take a look behind you, and you will see the name of the room emblazoned on the wall: Emancipation Hall. According to the AOC website, Emancipation Hall “was named to recognize the contributions of the enslaved laborers who helped build the U.S. Capitol.”

However, Emancipation Day is not just a point of pride for Washingtonians, but it is an important chance for all Americans to remember that most of our federal city was built by slave labor. George Washington, himself a slave owner, had a heavy hand in designing the city, and wanted to make sure that our new Capitol was the physical manifestation of the ideals behind the Constitution, though the irony of that desire is thick indeed, given who did the bulk of the labor. Then again, our history, as is every country’s, is rife with such contradictions.

We would love to hear from you on this subject, so please submit your thoughts and questions!

For more information on Emancipation Hall, the 1862 D.C. Emancipation, and Emancipation Day 2012, please visit the links below: