It during the wrenching days of the Civil War that Congress passed a bill that effectively ended slavery in the capital of the United States. And on this date, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the act that abolished slavery. The D.C. Emancipation Act initially provided for immediate freedom from slavery coupled with compensation to loyal Union slave owners of up to $300 for each slave. It also called for voluntary colonization of former slaves outside the United States.
Prior to that bill being enacted, slave ownership thrived in the District of Columbia. Slave dealers housed their slaves in crowded pens as they waited to sell them. So-called "slave-coffles" were commonplace. There were long lines of shackled African-Americans marching from one site to another, which gradually generated controversy throughout the nation. As Washington became the focus of abolitionism in the decades before the Civil War, anti-slavery activists argued that such scenes in the nation's capital disgraced the nation as a whole and its ideals.
The Compromise of 1850 abolished active slave trading within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. However, ownership of slaves was very much alive and well. Of the city's Black population in 1800, those who were enslaved outnumbered those who were free by four to one; however, by 1860 the number of free Blacks actually exceeded the number of slaves by three to one.
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(Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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