Emancipation Day May Go Public
Orange Wants to Elevate Holiday by Giving All D.C. Employees Day Off
By Dakarai I. Aarons
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2004; Page B02
The District was the first place in the nation where slaves were freed by the federal government, and for the first time, a D.C. Council proposal would declare the day a public holiday in the city.
In 2000, the council made Emancipation Day -- April 16 -- a private holiday, which allows city workers to use any paid or unpaid leave to celebrate the day. Now, council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) has proposed that it be made an official city holiday, giving thousands of city employees and schoolchildren the day off.
Orange said that after four years, it is time to take the holiday to another level and ensure that D.C. residents are free to participate.
In a meeting yesterday, the effort was supported by several people, including Frederick Douglass IV, the great-great-grandson of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, freeing all slaves in the District. The federal government paid nearly $1 million for the emancipation of nearly 3,100 slaves, according to the council bill. The emancipation occurred nearly nine months before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
When the holiday was first celebrated in the District in 1866, schoolchildren were an integral part of the events.
Although the city still celebrates the day, Orange said it has been difficult to get children to participate because school has been open. Closing schools would allow students to be involved in the music, parades, poetry readings, essay competitions and oratorical contests held that day, he said.
An elaborate parade that included sitting presidents was celebrated from 1866 to 1901, and Orange wants the celebration to return to its former glory.
"Eventually, it will be something people look forward to," he said. "It keeps the District of Columbia in the forefront."
Most Americans view the Emancipation Proclamation as the first federal act to free slaves, and Orange said he wants them to know that the District was first. With a larger-scale celebration, the city could educate more people about this piece of history, he said.
"Once people are aware [of Emancipation Day], everyone embraces it," Orange said.
Orange made the proposal yesterday to the Government Operations Committee, which he chairs. He said he plans to present the bill to the full council in October. If passed this year, the law would go into effect immediately, but Orange said the holiday would not have a fiscal impact on the city until 2007, the next time April 16 falls on a weekday.
"We're just looking forward to getting together on April 16, 2005, when it is a public holiday," he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Alfred Austin, left, great-grandson of newspaper editor William Calvin Chase, and Frederick Douglass IV participated in last year's Emancipation Day Parade in the District.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)