Today, city services have ground to a halt in celebration of Emancipation Day. If finally correcting a longstanding evil in Washington D.C. with which he and most other American leaders had remained complicit can be considered noble, Abe Lincoln bagged when he signed the D.C. Emancipation Act.
But the act also provided a little pro-displacement policy. While former slave owners were taken care of handsomely, former slaves were only helped out in the event they were willing to leave D.C.—and the United States altogether. $100 would be provided for slaves willing to immigrate to Haiti or Liberia, under the act.
At multiple points in its history, racist politicians have schemed to rid the District of its black population. Time and time again they failed, as the community hung tight.
I think it’ll continue to, even though recent Census numbers might imply otherwise. Talking with black resident Annette Kenner a number of years ago, she told me a story that had been passed down through generations of her family.
Though it’s hard to remember all the particulars of the tale now, Kenner, who lives in Capitol Hill, said one of her ancestors, known as Queenie, was working at a house near Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. The former slave was hanging wash when an injured white man ran by, frightening her.
Queenie later learned that President Lincoln had been shot, and that the fellow she’d seen making a dash for it was none other than conspirator and assassin John Wilkes Booth, goes the story.
I don’t pretend to have the historical chops to look into Kenner’s tale and see whether it holds up. But the fact that Washington belongs to Kenner’s family enough that a legend built up about such a historical event says something. There’s been too much history here, too much struggle for African American residents to ever truly abandon the city. Not even when the president of the United States himself is the one making the offer.
Photo by chadh Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0