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Emanciption Day 2014


Today is Emancipation Day in Washington, DC, and the city has been gung-ho for this holiday for  more than a century. Being history – and DC-obsessed as we are – we wanted to find out exactly how Emancipation Day was celebrated on its first anniversary in 1863.  So we dug through our Evening Star records to bring you this exclusive account, published April 17, 1865.  You won’t find these first-hand accounts anywhere but here, on the DC Insider Tours blog!

The Emancipation Jubilee –

The anniversary of the signing of the act for the emancipation of the slaves of the District of Columbia was celebrated last evening by a demonstration in the Fifteenth street Presbyterian Church, (colored).

This church is well known as the aristocratic colored church of the District, with cushioned seats, carpeted aisles, gold-lettered pews, marble-topped pulpit stand, handsome chandeliers, a fair organ, and a choir of no little celebrity.  Caucasians hurrying away from the damnable discords of their own church choirs, sometimes pause at the doors of the Fifteenth street church to hear the rich swell and fine harmonies of Grant’s choir, or the delicate grace of Boston’s voluntaries.  It is a well-dressed congregation.  Nowhere have we seen finer bonnets than here last night.  Altogther, the gathering and style of celebration was very different from that at the contraband camp in New Year’s night, addressed by rude speakers of the “John de Baptis” stripe.  With a single exception, last night, where a colored speaker used the scarcely defensible figure of representing slavery as “a dragon scattering lava throughout the land,” the speaking, both in matter and manner, was quite as good, if not better, than that which usually prevails at “demonstrations” amongst white folks.

About 8 o’clock the meeting was called to order by John F. Cook, (son of the well-known colored preacher), who introduced Rev. Mr. Shelton, (colored) of Cincinnati, who offered up a prayer, in which blessings were invoked on the members of Congress who passed the decree abolishing slavery, and the President for the measures he had taken to liberate the slaves of the country.

Mr. Thos. H.C. Hinton, (col.) of New York, who was the first speaker.  On the 16th of April, 1862, a law was promulgated making liberty paramount to slavery at the seat of the national jurisprudence of the country.  President Lincoln made the law secure by his approval, [applause] and that people which had heretofore been kept under the iron heel of oppression stood forth clothed in liberty.  In this act the right conquered might.  [Applause.]  Slavery, which had been maintained by a legion of political devils, regardless of the tears and entreaties of mother, wife or children, was partially done away with.  The people now left the dark picture of the past and beheld a gleam of liberty.  The country was no longer under an incubus, and with a massive blew the hydra-headed monster was felled to death.  […]

Let any one even to-day have but a drop of African blood in their veins, and let him or her pass or approach one of the slaveocrats and the first word you hear from them is, “Hello n*****!”  Any man or woman, if of African descent, is thus subject continually to a vile vituperation.  There is no redress when thus assaulted, unless you redress yourselves and take the law in your own hands.  And the law is simply for the white man and not for the black.  Again, if an African seeks accommodation in a street railroad car, he is told by the conductor, “We don’t accommodate n*****s in this car,” and this is one of the features of slavery as it exists in our midst.  If this is the case to-day, what was it before the issue of the Emancipation proclamation.  Must we not then do all to conquer this great prejudice and to destroy this fiery dragon that is scattering its devastating lava about our land.  It was the gift of the great and good God, and it was intended as the path in which all should walk. […]

The speaker concluded by reciting the following poem, which he had prepared for the occasion:

Dedicated to the Emancipated Slaves of the District of Columbia.

Almighty God! we praise thy name,
For having heard us pray;
For having freed us from our chains,
One year ago to-day.

We thank thee, for thy arm has stayed
Foul despotism’s sway,
And made Columbia’s District free,
One year ago to-day.

Give us the power to withstand
Oppression’s baneful fray;
That right may triumph as it did,
One year ago to-day.

Give liberty to millions yet
‘Neath despotism’s sway,
That they may praise thee as we did,
One year ago to-day.

O! guide us safely through this storm;
Bless Lincoln’s gentle sway,
And then we’ll ever praise thee, as
One year ago to-day.

[The recital of this poem elicited great applause.]

The affair concluded with some musical exercises in the basement of the church.  “Vive la America” and several pieces, including the “John Brown’s song,” were sung during the evening.


Our Emancipation Day celebrations are certainly different today, starting with the budget.  DC allotted $350,000 to today’s festivities.  The highlight will undoubtedly be the free concert tonight on Freedom Plaza (one of the sites on several of our tours!) featuring Talib Kweli, MC Lyte, Arrested Development and Doug E. Fresh.  If you can’t make it, you can still catch the fireworks tonight as long as you listen and look up when you hear those booms.  Happy Emancipation Day, everyone!