Freedom Rings Loud and Clear in District; Events Commemorate D.C. Emancipation

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 14, 2005 | Go to article overview

Freedom Rings Loud and Clear in District; Events Commemorate D.C. Emancipation


Byline: Lisa Rauschart, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One hundred forty-three years ago this Saturday, church bells and fancy dress balls were the order of the day as Washingtonians celebrated the end of slavery in the District of Columbia. For years afterward, parades, programs, and other celebrations were a particular rite of spring and affirmation for black Washingtonians.

That's D.C. Emancipation (1862), not the Emancipation Proclamation (1863).

"It was such a unique situation," says Council member Vincent Orange, who sponsored the legislation establishing April 16 as a public holiday in celebration of D.C. emancipation. "It actually anticipated Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by nine months."

So you never knew about those Emancipation Day parades, which involved thousands and wended their way along the city's major thoroughfares? You never knew that a cemetery on Benning Road contains some of the leading black citizens of post-Civil War Washington? Did you know that Abraham Lincoln retreated to a small cottage north of the White House to work on his own Emancipation Proclamation?

These and other stories are part of the nation's capital's other history, hidden to some, but always obvious to others.

Things will become a little more apparent after this weekend, with a host of events planned to celebrate Emancipation Day and the presentation of Walking Town, a series of 55 tours into all corners of the city, with several designed to highlight neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

"We wanted to showcase the entire city as a cultural community," says Kathy Smith, outgoing director of Cultural Tourism DC, a coalition of 140 cultural and arts organizations from every part of the city, which is coordinating the Walking Town project.

"Eighteen to twenty million people come every year to the National Mall and never find the city."

* * *

That wasn't always the case. From 1866 until the turn of the 20th century, District residents and tourists alike celebrated D.C. Emancipation with an annual parade, which took marchers into the heart of official Washington and its neighborhoods. National newspapers like Harper's Weekly routinely covered the event, which had thousands of Washingtonians, black and white, lining the streets.

"Parades are part of the African notion of special days of celebration," says Maurice Jackson, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University. "The parade tradition expresses the overall desire for freedom and unity within the African American community. It says, 'This is our right and we celebrate it.' "

The scale and scope of the parades suggests how organized Washington's black community had become by the Civil War, even when it was confronted by tens of thousands of migrants streaming up from the South, says Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, professor of history at Howard University, director of its Public History Program and editor of "First Freed: Washington, DC, in the Emancipation Era."

"Parades became important for African Americans on several levels," says Mrs. Clark-Lewis. "They were determined to express African American unity as they moved through the thoroughfares of the city."

Divisions within the black community, along with stepped-up white racism as a result of Jim Crow laws, halted the parades at the turn of the century.

"This was the time of some disagreement within the black community about how to go about affecting changes," Mr. Jackson says. "Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois were having their debates."

In the meantime, the generation that remembered the fight for D.C. emancipation had largely died off, and there was some dissension among descendants about financing and organizing the parades.

Those who remained were also forced to deal with new social and economic constraints, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Plessy vs. …

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