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Robert McNamara

Emancipation Day

By April 16, 2012

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Many Americans are puzzled about why their income taxes are due on April 17th this year. The delay is related to an event 150 years ago, the 1862 emancipation of slaves held in the District of Columbia.

The traditional tax deadline is April 15th, which falls on a Sunday this year. And the next day, April 16th, is the anniversary of President Lincoln signing the legislation ending slavery within the District of Columbia. Emancipation Day became an official holiday in Washington, D.C. in 2005.

The legislation to free slaves held in the District of Columbia moved through the Congress in early April 1862. A dispatch in the New York Tribune dated April 12, 1862 remarked on the significance of the new law, as it indicated a change in direction "distinctly in the interests of Freedom."

The Tribune, the newspaper of anti-slavery editor Horace Greeley, reported that "Slavery died a hard death on the floor of the House..." Some members of Congress did oppose the legislation bitterly.

Yet the newspaper quoted one congressman who commented on the historic moment: "There are some things in the bill which I don't like, but I can't make up my mind to deny to my children the pride they will feel in my having contributed to make the ground on which the Federal Capitol stands, free soil."

Some slave owners in Washington tried to skirt the law by transporting their slaves to Maryland, where slavery was still legal. A newspaper article headlined "Hurrying Them Off" vividly described how slaves were being packed onto carts and transported to Baltimore or the counties of southern Maryland.

The ending of slavery in the federal city was a precursor of the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln signed less than a year later, on January 1, 1863.

Celebrations of Emancipation Day were held in Washington, D.C. every April 16th from 1866 until the end of the 19th century. The tradition has been revived in recent years, and today a parade and other celebrations will be held in the city.

Illustration: Civil War era depiction of the goddess Columbia, symbol of the United States, emancipating slaves/Library of Congress

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