Eyewitness 1862: Emancipation in D.C. draws mixed reviews
Taxpayers had an extra day this year to file their federal returns, because April 16 -- the Monday after the normal April 15 IRS deadline -- was commemorated as "Emancipation Day" in Washington, D.C.
The holiday marks the day in 1862 when slaves in the nation's capital were freed.
"The hearts of all the friends of freedom are rejoiced by the report just made current that Mr. Lincoln has signed the bill for the emancipation of the blacks of this District," The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported on April 18, 1862.
The law passed by Congress called for slave owners to be paid $300 for each person granted freedom. The measure predated the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebelling Confederate states, by more than eight months.
While the Gazette, the city's Republican newspaper, praised Congress and Abraham Lincoln, the Pittsburgh Post, which supported the Democratic Party, was scornful of the president and the new law.
Lincoln had dithered for several days before signing the measure, the Post said in its April 18 edition. That delay gave slaveholders a chance to transport their more valuable "property" to neighboring Maryland, a border state where the emancipation law would not apply.
The newspaper concluded that "the late emancipation act is a total failure. ... It merely throws upon their own resources a class of people, old and young, who are totally incapable of turning to any advantage the sudden liberty which has been given them." Post editor James P. Barr called the measure "an act of cruelty to the slaves."
The Post's alternative was "gradual emancipation," the policy that had been adopted by Pennsylvania in 1780: Those currently enslaved were to remain slaves, but the future children of slaves would be freed. But that event would occur only after the offspring had worked long enough to compensate their parents' owners for the costs of providing food, clothing and shelter. In return, owners would be compelled to "provide for the old, worn-out bondsmen ..."
The Gazette mocked the proposal. The Democrats had decades to push that agenda, but "never by act or word showed the disposition to inaugurate" such a policy, the newspaper said the next day.
Two weeks later, the Gazette's Washington correspondent reported on how the District's African-Americans reacted to the emancipation law during a May 1 "day of solemn thanksgiving to God ..."
"So the joy over their deliverance here found expressions in assembling in their churches, in prayer, in singing," the anonymous journalist wrote in a story that appeared May 6.
As many as 1,500 people, all but a dozen of them black, gathered near the Capitol in Asbury Chapel to hear speeches and sing hymns. "Did anyone ever hear sweeter voices than were there?" the reporter asked. "I never did."
"Several colored men addressed their people in remarks characterized by practical good sense and abounding with wholesome advice," he wrote.
When a collection was taken up to help support escaped slaves -- "the poor refugees who daily reach this city from the blasted wastes of Virginia" -- $100 was raised in less than 10 minutes. That number is equal to more than $2,300 in modern currency.
The reporter was impressed that people who had very little were generous to those who had even less. The relief funds were raised among people who "were but last week ... chattels, things to be 'whipped on the bare back,' to have 'their ears clipped,' to be fined $5 for holding religious or other meetings without permission, later than 10 p.m."
First Published April 29, 2012 2:15 pm