Emancipation Day, D.C.’s conflicted holiday


WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 16: Ms. Senior DC 2013 Mary McCoy, center, sashays down Pennsylvania Ave. with from left, Ernestine Wiggins, Emma Ward, 2011 Ms. Senior DC, Nancy Berry, 1st runner up, and blocked, Sheila Poole, Ms. Senior DC 2010 Tuesday April 16, 2013 in Washington, DC during the Emancipation Parade. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The District’s only true local holiday is also its most conflicted. Emancipation Day, the occasion celebrating the 1862 act that freed 3,100 enslaved persons in the District with a parade, is also a day used to advocate for statehood and congressional voting rights.

The juxtaposition of protesting taxation without representation and a celebration of freedom perfectly defines the city’s complicated history.

While groups march yelling “Free D.C.!,” symbolizing the city’s lack of ability to truly self-govern, Miss District of Columbia rides by in a luxury car waving to the crowd. After school bands show off their latest steps and numbers, candidates march in an attempt to gain visibility right before the election. Indeed, it’s a fun time.

But the parade’s schizophrenic nature probably explains why most people don’t even know it exists.

For my money, with the Capitol as a backdrop, the parade should be a focused, determined push for voting rights and budget autonomy. As it stands, the random free-for-all nature of the event, although festive, dilutes the message.

Tabu Henry Taylor, who dressed in tattered clothes and chains to march in Tuesday’s parade, explained that message plainly. “We are still slaves here in the District of Columbia. We’re political slaves,” he said. “As a people as a political body here in the District of Columbia, citizens have no representation in Congress; therefore we are political slaves.”

But it seemed that half the bystanders were people who just walked outside their offices to see what was going on, or smelled the delicious food coming from the vendors on E Street NW. I’d like to see more people involved in making a sustained political point.

For sure, if the parade and events were focused more as a political rally, aimed to draw national attention, former mayor Anthony A. Williams’ s (D) effort to make the day a public holiday could be mean much more — and perhaps help with attendance.

Instead, it’s just a nebulous day off for local city workers, known best as a time to take advantage of a lack of parking meter enforcement.

And as I parked illegally on 13th Street NW to attend the parade, a businessman looking for a spot before an appointment asked me why I was taking the chance. I told him that because it was a holiday, I might not get a ticket. He looked at me incredulously. After deciding against the risk, he drove past and rolled down his window.

“Could you tell me the name of that holiday again . . . Emancipation Day?” he said. “What the hell is that?”

Exactly.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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