Emancipation Proclamation: Freedom in Washington, DC

Today’s blog post comes from National Archives social media intern Anna Fitzpatrick.

Image: Petition of Margaret C. Barber, 05/21/1862; Record Group 217; National Archives (National Archives Identifier: 4644520)

Nine months before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he signed a bill on April 16, 1862, that ended slavery in the District of Columbia. The act finally concluded many years of disagreements over ending ”the national shame” of slavery in the nation’s capital.

The law provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to loyal Unionist masters of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to colonies outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 to each person choosing emigration. Although this three-way approach of immediate emancipation, compensation, and colonization did not serve as a model for the future, it pointed toward slavery’s death. Emancipation was greeted with great joy by the District’s African American community.

The white population of DC took advantage of the act’s promise of compensation. One month after the act was issued, Margaret Barber presented a claim to the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, saying that she wanted to be compensated by the Federal Government, which had freed her 34 slaves.

Image: Petition of Margaret C. Barber, 05/21/1862; Record Group 217; National Archives (National Archives Identifier: 4644520)

Margaret Barber estimated that her slaves were worth a total of $23,400. On June 16, 1862, slave trader Bernard Campbell examined 28 of Barber’s slaves to assess their value for the Commission. In the end, Barber received $9,351.30 in compensation for their emancipation.

But five of the 34 did not await the Commission’s deliberations. ”[S]ince the United States troops came here,” said Barber, they had ”absented themselves and went off and are believed still to be in some of the Companies and in their service.”

Although the final Emancipation Proclamation did not allow for compensation such as Margaret Barber received, this earlier act proved to be an important step towards the final emancipation of the slaves. Less than a year later, on New Year’s Day of 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into effect, and two years later the 13th Amendment finished the process of freeing all the slaves.

To learn more about the compensation of owners and the personal information you can find in the commission records at the National Archives, you can read “Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation’s Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors” by Damani Davis.

The story of Margaret Barber’s claims for compensation and the District of Columbia Emancipation Act is based on the article ”Teaching with Online Primary Sources: Documents from the National Archives: The Demise of Slavery in the District of Columbia, April 16, 1862,” written by Michael Hussey. It’s also featured in The Meaning and Making of Emancipation, an eBook created by the National Archives.

Be sure to stop by the National Archives for the special display of the original document from Sunday, December 30, to Tuesday, January 1. The commemoration will include extended viewing hours, inspirational music, a dramatic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and family activities and entertainment for all ages.

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