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Celebrating the Day Freedom Arrived

City Observance Brings History To the Party

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C01

With the syncopated beats of marching bands, a colorful parade down Pennsylvania Avenue and historical characters in costume, Washington yesterday celebrated the day that slaves in the nation's capital were freed 143 years ago.

It was the first time that Emancipation Day was honored as a public holiday, commemorating April 16, 1862, the date President Abraham Lincoln freed 3,100 African Americans in Washington. From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, parents, politicians and historians seized the chance to take residents back to a time when men and women were property.

Members of the Ballou Senior High School band play at Freedom Plaza for the District's first official Emancipation Day holiday. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

Had they ever heard of Philip Reid, the newly freed slave who bolted in the "Freedom" statue atop the U.S. Capitol while working for sculptor Clark Mills? He was paid $37.25 for his work, months after Mills was paid by the government to set him free.

"I have no doubt his heart was heavy with irony," historian C.R. Gibbs told a crowd gathered for an emancipation ceremony at Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. "Here he's been hired to put up a statue to freedom, when he himself had been enslaved."

Or did they know of Elizabeth Thomas, a freed slave who owned land and a house that Union soldiers largely confiscated to build and secure Fort Stevens in Northwest Washington?

"Lincoln apologized to Miss Thomas, promised to give her back some money, but he never did, because he got shot," said Donise Stevens, an actress. She was wearing an aproned dress to resemble Thomas in a group of costumed historical figures sponsored by the D.C. Humanities Council.

"She was a little-known heroine, like so many other Washingtonians whose back yards became a Civil War battlefield, and made her own personal sacrifice to the war," Stevens said.

The Dozier sisters, Christine, Leora and Consuelo, all mothers from Southeast Washington, applauded the parading bands from the sidewalk. They also cheered the history lesson on display.

"When I brought my kids out today, I had to explain to them what the parade was about," said Leora Dozier, remarking on the replica of a slave ship in the parade. "The schools don't really teach kids about slavery. If I asked my kids today, 'What's a slave?,' they wouldn't know the answer."

For Rhonda Bruce, 31, it was a day of freedom from the street violence in her neighborhood on Maryland Avenue NE, dubbed "Vietnam" by some residents.

"Where we are, we don't have a lot of activities for kids," she said. "This is a nonviolent atmosphere. Everybody's getting along. And it's important for us to learn and participate in our history."

Her nephew Anthony Hatton, 12, said emancipation was just fair. "The black people got free because they just wanted to have the same things that the white people had," Anthony said.

His friend and classmate, 12-year-old Marcus Blair, told it like this: "We were in slavery because the white folks were more powerful than us."

D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) introduced the bill to make Emancipation Day a public holiday in the District, part of a campaign to bring more attention to the event. Lincoln signed the law to free slaves in Washington nearly nine months before he signed the better-known Emancipation Proclamation, which called for freeing them in the rebellious South. Besides the parade and speeches, there were concerts and other festivities.

Orange bounced to the beat as Eastern Senior High School's band reached the stage at Freedom Plaza, where Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other city leaders gathered after the parade. Orange beamed at the swelling crowd.

"You have to know your past to know your future," Orange said. "I'm elated we can memorialize our history in this way."

Nearby, Frederick Douglass IV, great-great-grandson and namesake of the abolitionist and writer, said celebrations are crucial to remind the 21st century of its roots. And emancipation might not have happened without Douglass's ancestor. He helped convince Lincoln that allowing slavery to persist in the nation's capital sent a terrible signal to African Americans throughout the Union. Lincoln then persuaded Congress to pay D.C. slave owners about $300 for each freed slave. The Emancipation Proclamation provided no such payments to owners.

"We need to keep our young people reminded of the past, the strength of some of those leaders and what they overcame to become doctors and lawyers," Frederick Douglass IV said. "They need to know there's no excuse for young people not to succeed today."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company