The rain stopped, balloons floated, bands marched and the crowd, such as it was, cheered.
Wednesday marked another Emancipation Day in the District of Columbia, the 152nd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of a bill freeing slaves in Washington. For the ninth year running, the city celebrated with a morning parade. Perhaps because of the chilly temperatures, perhaps because only District government employees and school children had the day off, the parade drew a sparse group of spectators along a 10-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
But those who did attend were pleased to take part. Nana Gyesie, a 36-year-old human resources officer, took the morning off to watch the parade with his 8-year-old son, Gabriel. It was the second straight year they had done so.
A native of Ghana now living in Arlington, Gyesie said he had “a new African American’s perspective” on the holiday and what it means to celebrate a milestone in the abolition of slavery on America’s Main Street.
“I think it’s important to understand and appreciate what it means to walk around and be here,” he said.
The parade — with military and school bands, 10-foot-wide balloons bearing the faces of great Americans, and many marching politicians — went off smoothly despite an intragovernmental fight over funding that threatened to cancel it earlier in the week.
The fight, between Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council, highlighted the cost of the Emancipation Day celebrations, which included a town-hall debate, a prayer breakfast and a free concert. A budget of $350,000 did not include the cost of police and fire department resources, among other government expenses, which led to the dispute.
Gray and D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who has championed the holiday and who planned the festivities, marched together Wednesday, albeit with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) between them.
Larry Wooden, 53, a Marine veteran who works with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the city should have used some money to better organize and publicize the events .
He said crowd control was poor, the bands were not well spaced, and security seemed to be inadequate. “They didn’t have to spend that amount of money on this,” Wooden said. “It could have been budgeted better. There are a lot of families here that need food and shelter.”
But Kate Langsdorf, a District resident who works at Ford’s Theatre, said the controversy over the funding did not faze her. “We should do something to celebrate there not being any slaves,” she said. “That seems like kind of a big deal to throw a parade for. It would bother me if they canceled the parade. This is important.”
It was an educational experience for some. Stephen Monks, 54, a labor manager visiting from Brockport, N.Y., with his wife, Kathy, asked why there was a parade. After a reporter explained the holiday and the funding dispute, Monks said he didn’t see a problem with the expenditure.
“With $100,000 being a lot of money in some respects, it’s a drop in the bucket in other ways,” he said. “It’s something we shouldn’t forget.”
Inside the John A. Wilson Building, a few dozen people — many of them seasoned activists — gathered in the council chamber to hear the latest news on the District’s fight for statehood. Meanwhile, other activists plied Capitol Hill, lobbying senators and representatives on District voting rights.
“Look, it’s Emancipation Day, and we can’t fill up the room with people who are about this issue,” said Michael D. Brown, the District’s elected “shadow” senator.
But several spectators and participants said as long as the holiday is commemorated on a weekday when most workers have to remain on the job, the parade and other events will remain an intimate affair.
“Wednesday is not exactly practical for people who have to worry about paying their mortgage,” Gyesie said.