During the final three decades of the 19th century, on April 16 city streets always brimmed with prancing horses, wagons and carriages decked with gay flowers or bright ribbons, high-stepping soldiers and brass bands.
Men dressed in their finest broadcloths and women sparkled in splendid silks and taffetas. The president of the United States usually attended.
This now-forgotten celebration, called the District Emancipation Day parade, marked the freeing of 3,000 slaves in the city by President Lincoln in 1862 and was held annually from 1866 to 1901.
A cloudburst that left the city's unpaved streets a muddy morass delayed the first celebration set for April 16, 1866, by three days.
The parade started out from Franklin Square, at 13th and I streets NW, led by Alfred Kiger, a hackdriver who lived on H Street NW and was the parade's chief marshal. He wore a yellow sash with pink trimmings atop his broadcloth coat.
His chief aides, William Shorter, a messenger at the City Post Office, and William Nichols, a saloon keeper near what is now the municipal center, wore blue sashes.
Then came two units of black troops with their regimental bands.
Parade officials dressed in white sashes followed, and after them came the Simmonds Commandery of the Knights Templar bearing "their fine white silk banner on the face of which appears the red cross and a handsome national flag," according to a newspaper account.
Two carriages decorated with small flags passed next. Among the passengers were George F.T. Cook, superintendent of the District's Colored Schools; Bishop Daniel Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of the city's largest black church, 15th Street Presbyterian.
Then came an almost endless line of black social, secret, benevolent and political societies, each bearing flags, banners or pictures.
The first parade route included stops at the Freedman's Bureau, 19th and I streets NW, General Grant's headquarters, 17th and F streets NW, the White House and the Capitol.
An artillery salute welcomed the cheering crowd to the White House grounds. President Andrew Johnson spoke to about 15,000 marchers and onlookers that day.
By the 1880s, the parade had grown larger, gaudier and more popular. Blacks were then 33 percent of the city's population of 177,624. Most of the shantytowns where newly freed slaves had lived during and after the Civil War were gone. (Many were located where the Commerce Department and District Building now stand.)
Most of the downtown streets had been paved under an ambitious city improvement program to improve and beautify the District after the Civil War.
The city's prominence as the national capital and mecca for black intellectuals, politicians and educators attracted the finest black and liberal white speechmakers to the parade. Frederick Douglass was keynote speaker for more than half a dozen observances.
But by 1886, behind-the-scenes bickering among parade planners erupted into an open and ugly test of wills, primarily between Perry H. Carson, a scrappy, ambitious man who had worked his way up from messenger to restaurant owner to deputy U.S. marshal, and William Calvin Chase, a lawyer and editor of the Washington Bee, one of the city's black newspapers.
The personality fight mirrored a deeper schism between Washington's two black communities -- one composed of the largely light-skinned, educated, long-established blacks. These men worked in lower-level government jobs, considered very prestigious in the black community. The women gave teas, organized literary societies and gave social affairs. These were Chase's backers.
Carson's power base lay among those who were largely darker-skinned and had come to the city as freedmen 20 to 25 years earlier. The women worked largely as washwomen and the men as laborers.
Chase, a member of the black aristocracy, began the Bee in 1882 from his home at 1109 I St. NW. Putting his newspaper solidly behind the Emancipation Day Parade, the dour Chase became its chief behind-the-scenes manager. Carson, who had been chief marshal of several Emancipation Day parades, preferred the limelight and drama of parade day.
Carson was defeated in the election for chief marshal at the February 1886 parade planning convention. He retaliated by hastily organizing his own "Peoples Parade" for April 16.
The Bee, in its story April 17, noted angrily that there were "two processions, two meetings, two sets of orators." President Cleveland refused to review either parade and locked the White House gates to both. Carson's rump parade marched by the White House anyway. The traditional parade took a different route.
By 1887 Chase and Carson had somewhat reconciled. Carson received a minor post on the arrangements committee. Chase remained in charge.
But the parade fell in further disrepute when that year's keynote speaker, historian George Washington Williams, attacked Cleveland, calling his handful of black political appointees "Judases" although most of them were Republicans. Cleveland was the first Democrat elected president after the Civil War. The party was regarded by blacks as the champion of southerners.
In the 1890s, fightings, muggings and shootings began to mar parade day. When a group of black parents asked the arrangements committee to abolish the street parade because of "the bad moral effect it was having upon the children," Chase resigned from the committee, which was largely taken over by Carson and his supporters.
In 1899 the school board voted to stop closing the "colored" schools for the parade. That decision, dwindling crowds and widespread rumors that money collected by the arrangements committee was being misspent finally killed the parade in 1901.