Washington in the early war years continued to be riven by the fault lines of race and politics. A decade earlier, Congress had abolished slave trade in the District but not slavery itself. Domestic, governmental and service jobs attracted African Americans from Maryland and Virginia, where restrictions were greater.
“By the time of the war, slavery had been diminished considerably,” said Lincoln scholar Edna Medford of Howard University. “Of the 14,000 people of color in the city, fewer than 3,200 were enslaved.”
Still, in 1861, free blacks — lawyers and laborers, midwives and ministers, doorkeepers and educators — had to navigate past slave pens, and slave catchers patrolled Washington for fugitives.
“Right here, in the bedrock of this great nation, was a contradiction, this horrible situation,” said Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.
“Free blacks endured injustices such as a 10 p.m. curfew and morality laws, which sought to legislate black behavior — no swearing in public or gambling or card-playing, et cetera, no political rights,” Medford said. “Free blacks had to prove their free status and had to carry certificates of freedom at all times. They also had to enter into bonds with five respected members of the community who were willing to ensure their good behavior. Nor could blacks testify against whites in court.”
The punishments were fines, jail and whippings. If no one came to bail out free arrestees, “they would be sold to pay the cost of their jail fees,” historian C.R. Gibbs said.
A push for emancipation
By the end of 1861, the situation in the capital had become untenable. Escapees from Southern states arrived without housing, jobs or money. While the city wrestled with how to care for them, fugitive slaves from Maryland were being hunted down and locked up, because federal law still protected slavery in states loyal to the Union.
“Union soldiers marching through Maryland to protect the capital in the spring of 1861 — that was destabilizing to slavery,” said Kate Masur, a Northwestern University history professor and author of “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” “A lot of enslaved people took the opportunity to run away.”