Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed slaves nationwide. It freed slaves in areas that were still in rebellion against the United States. The 13th Amendment, approved in 1865, freed slaves nationwide.

Emancipation Day, a D.C. Government Holiday, Still Surprises After 4 Years

The New Community Church in Northwest was filled with young activists and students who came together the day Abraham Lincoln signed the bill to free the slaves in the District of Columbia, nine months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Video by Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post
By David Nakamura and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 17, 2009

It was midday when Shawn Campbell showed up at the D.C. police headquarters at Judiciary Square to complete a job application yesterday. But when he pulled on the glass doors, they didn't open.

The office was closed, no one was around, and his girlfriend, who had dropped him off, had driven away. Campbell looked around, unsure where to go.

So it was on Emancipation Day, a D.C. government holiday established in 2005 that hasn't exactly seeped into the collective consciousness just yet.

"Oh, I should have known," said Campbell, 36, who grew up in the city and now lives in Clinton. "I heard about it yesterday on the radio, but I forgot."

He wasn't the only one. The holiday, which means a day off for city workers and public school students, was signed into law by former Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to commemorate the day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln freed the city's 3,000 slaves, a year before his Emancipation Proclamation did the same nationwide.

But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has proposed eliminating the day off next year to save about $2 million in holiday pay to critical workers, such as police, fire and medical personnel. That has caused consternation among activists, who say the day is an important reminder of the city's history.

Dominic T. Moulden, executive director of ONEDC, which organized an Emancipation Day "teach-in" at the New Community Church in Northwest Washington, said: "It is politically disrespectful for Mayor Fenty to eliminate a day that has been important to the people who have spent generations in the city and have built this city. Emancipation is the only holiday that honors the enslaved Africans in D.C."

The holiday brought forth a mix of small celebrations, including a rally for representation in Congress in Franklin Square downtown, where about three dozen activists gave speeches tying emancipation to the struggle for voting rights and statehood for the District.

"D.C. emancipation is not complete when D.C. does not have voting rights," said Jean-Louis Ikambana, area director of the American Friends Service Committee.

Curtis Taylor, a social worker at a city charter school, brought his sons Jahwill, 9, and Kokayi, 4, to the rally. He was disappointed by the low turnout, remembering the large crowd that came out for an Emancipation Day concert in 2005.

"Unless you have entertainment, people don't show up," he said. "I talk to youth who don't even know what the Emancipation Proclamation was."

Fenty appeared at a news conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to announce that the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha had set a Guinness Book world record for having the largest sit-down dinner in history last summer (16,206 people).

"The day that we were freed as slaves will always be a day to commemorate," he said. "The government . . . will find new ways to bring attention to it and help people to celebrate it." But the mayor did not attend any Emancipation Day events yesterday.

At Judiciary Square, people continued to show up at government offices only to be met by locked doors. A woman from Pennsylvania and her daughter came to the Department of Motor Vehicles to try to register a car.

A woman from Florida had come to challenge a $500 ticket. When told the office was closed for Emancipation Day, she grimaced.

"I came all the way here just to fight this," she said, walking away.

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