Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) intends to sign legislation next week authorizing the city to spend $1.1 million from its reserves to pay the costs of a new city holiday commemorating the date President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the District.
The law will allow the city to pay for Emancipation Day, which would be a legal city holiday observed on April 16, beginning in 2005.
According to a fiscal impact statement from Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, the amount is the estimated cost of giving employees such as police officers and fire department personnel holiday pay when the holiday falls on the weekend, which will occur in 2005. When the holiday falls during the workweek and city employees and schoolchildren have the day off, there will an estimated total cost of $2.9 million, according to mayoral spokeswoman Sharon Gang.
The council will not give final approval of the bill sponsored by Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) establishing April 16 as a legal city holiday until next month. But members voted to support the measure 11-1 on a first reading of that bill in November.
Should the bill pass, and should the mayor, who has previously voiced his support, sign it, it will mark the end of a four-year effort by slave descendants, historians and public officials to bring the highest level of recognition to a little-told aspect of District history.
"We have to make sure that our history is documented, and that we build on that," Orange said.
The District was first place in the nation where the federal government freed slaves. On April 16, 1862, Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act. It freed all District slaves, about 3,100, and the federal government compensated slave owners nearly $1 million for the emancipation. About nine months later, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, which ordered that slaves in areas rebelling against the Union be freed.
In 2000, the D.C. Council passed legislation sponsored by Orange to recognize Emancipation Day and to allow city workers to use leave to observe the day. The District has held Emancipation Day activities, including a parade featuring Frederick Douglass IV, oratorical contests and essay competitions, but it has been difficult for children to participate because it is a school day. Orange said that he plans to work with the school system in developing more activities around the proposed holiday.
The council member also said that from 1866 to 1901, the District held an elaborate parade that included sitting presidents, and he hopes to bring some of that past glory back to the celebration.
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) did not vote in support of the funding bill and said he does not plan to vote in support of the holiday. Mendelson, who has participated in past Emancipation Day events, said he believes the event is worthy of commemoration but is not worth the cost of closing the government, an act that affects residents and businesses.
"I don't want to minimize the importance of the event, but we've been celebrating this, just not as a legal holiday, for four years," Mendelson said. "There are costs to the private sector and to the public. What happens when the average citizen who wants to contact the government can't do it because it's a legal holiday?"