A real Emancipation Day in D.C. would build our traditions rather than spend our money

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 15

Okay, time out. This is too embarrassing. When a celebration of “Emancipation Day” depends on the largesse of taxpayers, you need to step back and rethink what emancipation really means.

It’s been 152 years since slavery was abolished in the District, but to watch D.C. politicians haggling over funds for the celebration, you’d think we’d just walked off the plantation.

The D.C. Council allocated $350,000 for the commemoration, which is to kick off with a parade Wednesday. The organizers budgeted $19,000 on balloons, $27,500 on fireworks and $130,000 on a “free concert.” Apparently, they forgot the budget for the parade and asked for an additional $116,000.

What a pitiful reminder that emancipation does not necessarily mean liberation.

Here we are in the Washington area, home to one of the largest concentrations of wealthy African Americans — and black-owned businesses — in the United States. Why leave the celebration to the haphazard management of D.C. government officials?

Why not ante up ourselves?

There are at least 10,000 black-owned businesses in the District alone, according to the census. In neighboring Prince George’s County, which is the wealthiest majority-black county in the country, 54 percent of businesses are black-owned.

In Montgomery County, 24 percent of businesses are black-owned. Even in Fairfax County, which is not the first place that comes to mind when you’re talking about black businesses, there are more than 7,000 black-owned businesses with combined annual sales of $1.27 billion.

About a century ago, during the nadir of post-slavery life in America, black people in Washington had somehow managed to make near-miraculous advances. The city would later see U Street become known as the “Black Broadway,” featuring some of the most famous entertainers in the world — Duke Ellington at the top of the list. Outstanding intellectuals were in abundance, drawn by Howard University.

Today, we mourn the loss of many of old businesses in the city, and yet we hardly acknowledge the ones that have replaced them. The amount of money black people spend just on hair products would rival the gross national product of some small nations. If every black person in the area donated a dime today, we could fund Emancipation Day celebrations forever.

When it comes to the struggle for freedom, black people in our region cannot be separated by artificially drawn jurisdictions. The District’s enslaved black people may have been the “first freed,” but right next door in Virginia were the first Africans to be enslaved. And how can the District honor President Abraham Lincoln as some kind of Moses when he allowed blacks in neighboring Maryland to remain enslaved?

Instead of displaying our collective strengths, we make a show of a lingering slave mentality — appearing weak and engendering an all too familiar mix of contempt and pity.

My colleague Mike DeBonis wrote a story about the Emancipation Day funding on Tuesday. A sampling of comments posted about it makes my point:

“Remembering how much I paid for property taxes, I feel sick. Aren’t there any grown-ups in the District Building [who know how to] spend OUR money.”

“It shouldn’t take Beyoncé or anyone else to get people out to celebrate. . . . If people don’t appreciate it maybe the parade needs to be canceled. Certainly, at minimum, there are plenty of schools in D.C. that could use the money.”

“Why isn’t Emancipation Day simply treated as a special day for commemorating D.C.’s local history with a day of educational events within the public schools? Wouldn’t that make more sense?”

I can only add to the sentiments. For instance, I could see how, say, Harriet Tubman would need resources to help fund an Underground Railroad, leading hundreds of black people on an arduous journey from slavery to freedom. But needing a hundred grand for a parade?

It’s oxymoronic to be dependent on government to celebrate emancipation.

Just close off a street and ask the United House of Prayer’s brass band to lead everybody around the block? Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for an Emancipation Day rap show, invite poets who speak of free spirits.

As for those intellectual panel discussions, stop wasting money flying in participants from far-off ivory towers. Better to hear from some “returning citizens,” as our ex-offenders are now called. Let them talk about how education would have meant freedom for them if only they’d been able to get one in school.

Time to free our minds, D.C. Better to build a tradition on our own than beg for one.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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