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A Capital Celebration: The National Archives Commemorates DC Emancipation

An Act of April 16, 1862 (For the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia), 04/16/1862 (ARC ID #299814)

While Union and Confederate forces clashed on southern battlefields in 1862, a historic piece of legislation ended “the national shame” of slavery in the nation’s capital. The District of Columbia Emancipation Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862.

The legislation provided for immediate emancipation and monetary compensation to former slave owners. It also stipulated that owners claiming compensation file schedules listing and describing each slave. The Supplemental Act of July 12, 1862 expanded on the first act by permitting the submission of schedules by slaves whose owners did not reside in the District of Columbia.

As a result of the first act, the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves approved 930 petitions from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves. The supplemental act resulted in another 161 petitions from individuals, including many former slaves who were allowed to file because their owners had failed to comply with the first act’s deadline.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the DC Emancipation Act, the National Archives has released this short documentary video. The four-minute video is part of the ongoing “Inside the Vaults” series on our YouTube channel.

For more information about DC Emancipation and slave petitions,  read “Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation’s Capital” from Prologue magazine. Also, the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. will host a panel discussion on “DC Emancipation: The Struggle for Freedom, Liberty, Justice, and Equality” on April 18 at 7 PM. The event is free and open to the public.

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