If there were only one thing worth celebrating in life, it would be liberty. This past week, Washington, D.C.’s celebration of Emancipation Day did just that.
At the national level, however, our leaders seem to have sidelined the most important liberation in American history. In doing so, our nation downplays the cruelty and inhumane nature of our country’s founders. We’re cheating our nation’s citizens, our history and ourselves.
Fortunately, Washington D.C. is one of the few cities that seems to have caught this oversight. On April 16, Emancipation Day celebrated the abolition of slavery within the borders of the District of Columbia on the same date in 1862.
This celebration demonstrates respect for the inhuman and tragic institution of slavery over several hundred years in this country. It shows respect for the descendants—a large portion of African Americans today. However, we’ve left them out in the cold without celebrating the freedom of all Americans.
Despite the nation’s capital putting emphasis where due, the rest of the country continues to gloss over this crucial moment of national and world history.
Part of this can be attributed to the relatively complicated timeline of of full national emancipation.
More specifically, the day we celebrate in Washington, D.C. today commemorates the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. Yes, that’s correct. This act represents the only instance of compensation for freed slaves.
It was introduced in Congress in December 1861. The bill passed the House on April 3 and the Senate on April 11. So, while Lincoln did sign this law into effect, he was by no means the protagonist of this step in the process.
What can be directly attributed to Lincoln, however, is the Emancipation Proclamation. Issued on September 22, 1862, it set a 100-day timeline for the full emancipation of non-freed persons (i.e. slaves) in the states under the Confederacy which had not returned to the Union by the 100 day mark.
The states affected were South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas and North Carolina. The Union slave states of Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky were not included—however, I’m sure they saw that the writing was on the way. Also, Tennessee wasn’t included because it had already been taken back by the Union military.
Slaves freed immediately by the proclamation, however, were limited, as they still had to escape Confederate controlled areas to be free. I can’t imagine that brave task as any easier than before the Civil War—or any less risky. As a presidential proclamation (as opposed to congressional legislation or a constitutional amendment) many abolitionists feared that it was nothing more than a smoke screen.
The problem with celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation is that the 100 day timeline landed on January 1, 1863. So this monumental date in history is in constant competition with New Year’s Day—pretty tough holiday to scooch aside.
In fact, the true end of slavery wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by (enough) state legislatures on December 6, 1865, and proclaimed 12 days later. So it seems that December 18 is a better and more accurate day to celebrate on the national scale.
The issue however, isn’t the dates. It could be an arbitrary date for all I care. The fact is that a major turning point away from cruelty and barbarity is ignored in our list of national holidays. Washington DC is right to celebrate Emancipation Day—if only the nation would follow its lead.