Emancipation Day

This Washington DC holiday commemorates the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862. On this day every year and often during the entire month of April, the public gathers for wreath laying and ceremonies, especially at Lincoln’s Memorial.

Also, the area holds events such as poetry readings and concerts along with historical document presentations, museum exhibitions, and public educational events. The holiday is traditionally only celebrated in Washington DC, where many schools and offices take the day off. It is seen as an occasion to celebrate DC culture, provide education concerning slavery, and to focus on racial issues in past and present American culture.

Many US territories in the Caribbean celebrate the holiday during the summer, as this area was heavily involved with the slave trade. Ohio also considers Emancipation Day a state holiday, but it is celebrated in September.

Holiday History

Around 4 million slaves presided in the US in 1860, but the Compensated Emancipation Act only freed slaves within the District of Colombia, around 5000. Slavery was not totally abolished throughout the US until 1865, but DC had long been a hub for pro-slavery advocates and slave traders.

Abraham Lincoln was instrumental in the passing of the Compensated Emancipation Act, as were many of his other actions during the civil war: In April of 1861, Confederate troops fired the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, soon after the new president’s inauguration. Lincoln’s war efforts included blockades, budgeting war funds, and imprisoning Confederate supporters in the North. Lincoln continued self-education on military strategies.

Notable acts by Lincoln during the Civil War, other than acting as commander-in-chief, included the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confiscation Act, which banned slavery on federal territory, and the Gettysburg Address in July of 1863. In 1864, Lincoln won reelection against General George McClellan. After Lincoln signed the 13th amendment in January, abolishing slavery, on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War. During Lincoln’s reconstruction efforts, he was assassinated on April 11, 1865.

DC made the holiday official in 2005. Other places that celebrate Emancipation Day on a different day include Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, Jamaica, Bermuda, Bahamas, and other places in the Caribbean.

Celebrations Outside the US

  • Barbados observes an entire Season of Emancipation from April to August. Many relevant events occurred during this period, including the 1816 slave rebellion.
  • Some Caribbean countries celebrate the holiday as part of Carnival.
  • Other Celebrators include Saint Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos.

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