“A GREAT OCCASION FOR DISPLAY”
CONTESTATION IN WASHINGTON, D. C.,
We are not to be governed bythe rabble and mob that has been a disgrace to this community. What the people desire is a respectable gathering.
—Bee (Washington, D. C. ), 1884
These annual celebrations of ours should be so arranged as to make a favorable impression for us upon ourselves and upon our fellowcitizens…. If theyfail to produce, in some measure, such results, they had better be discontinued.
—Frederick Douglass, 1886
W HILE EMANCIPATION celebrations were held in manycities and towns across the United States during the late nineteenth century, no single African American community maintained the commemoration of a Freedom Dayanniversary more continuously than in the nation's capital. Blacks in Washington, D. C., held occasional January 1 celebrations, but theywere far more consistent in their commemoration of the April 16, 1862, abolition of slaveryin the Federal District, which was observed annuallyat least up to the turn of the century. 1 This commemorative tradition remained an important touchstone for District blacks, but over time the observance of April 16 became less a celebration than a forum for airing personal animosities and a point of convergence for various debates over black politics, intraracial class relations, public deportment, and the memoryof slavery. In manyrespects, Washington's black population was unique. Its proximity to the national government made the citya mecca for talented and ambitious black professionals and office-seekers. The presence of Howard University(founded 1867), the Bethel Literaryand Historical Society(1882), and the American Negro Academy(1897) defined Washington as a center of black intellectual activity. The presence of a deeply entrenched, light-skinned free black elite accentuated intraracial color and class divisions beyond those experienced in most black communities. Washington between the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance was arguablythe preeminent intellectual, cul