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When Elizabeth Clark-Lewis headed south from Harrisburg, Pa., to attend Howard University in the early ’70s, she got an earful from her older family members. Several of them told her that she could expect to do well in Washington because it was the home of the “First Freed.”
When Clark-Lewis asked them who the First Freed were, her relatives explained that the term referred to the first slaves in the United States ever to be emancipated: those who resided in Washington on April 16, 1862, when Congress—acting at the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, who was under pressure to act on slavery in the midst of the Civil War—passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. Lincoln’s more famous Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy, was still five months in the future.
Clark-Lewis—the director of Howard University’s Public History Program and co-producer of Freedom Bags, a 1990 documentary about African-American women who migrated to Washington in the early 20th century—recalls that she was “continually amazed” at how large the emancipation of Washington loomed in the minds of her African-American family. “They weren’t historians—many of them were steelworkers—but in an anecdotal way, they just assumed that the people in D.C. had so many more advantages because they lived here,” she says.
That assumption prompted Clark-Lewis to delve deeper into the story of D.C. blacks’ transition from slavery to freedom. The result is a newly released book from Howard University Press called First Freed: Washington, D.C., in the Emancipation Era. The book has its roots in a lecture series that Clark-Lewis helped organize in 1992—the 130th anniversary of what she likes to call “the original Freedom Summer.” In neighborhoods across the city, local historians recounted tales of emancipation and its aftermath in D.C.
First Freed features essays by seven local scholars, plus an introduction by Clark-Lewis. Reflecting Clark-Lewis’ background in “public history,” the authors dug deep into the archives of churches and other local institutions for records and recollections of how people in D.C. helped former slaves make the transition to freedom. “The book doesn’t focus on the misery of the enslaved people, or housing, employment, socioeconomic conditions, or the worsening relationship with Congress,” she says. “The book really looks at how activists on the local level changed history.”
For decades after emancipation, blacks in Washington celebrated April 16 as an annual holiday, punctuated by a lively parade that featured floats, marchers in military regalia, and signs advocating such things as racial equality, according to Howard doctoral candidate Craig Schiffert’s chapter. By the mid-1880s, some affluent African-Americans had begun to boycott the parade, citing “rowdyism,” but it continued in some form until the District’s white leadership revoked the holiday in 1899 and banned the parade in 1900—to shield children, they contended, from “demoralizing and degrading” sights. Though special April 16 events continued to be held for the next few decades, they had largely died out by midcentury.
But this past April 16—more than 100 years after the last official celebration—the parade returned to downtown Washington, thanks to the efforts of Loretta Carter Hanes, a founder of Reading Is Fundamental, and D.C. Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., who spearheaded a golfing fundraiser and an awards dinner in honor of Emancipation Day.
One often-overlooked aspect of the D.C. emancipation is that the government bought the freedom of many Washington slaves by compensating the slaveholders—the first and last time that policy was followed. It’s a fact about which Clark-Lewis expresses a good degree of regret. “I can understand Lincoln’s desire to compensate,” she says. “But personally, as the descendant of a slave, it begs the question: If slave owners were compensated, what compensation was extended to slaves for their hundreds of years of labor and all the indignities of being chattel?” —Louis Jacobson