Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Tex. in 1936. Lemmons was born a slave south of San Antonio around 1850. He came to Carrizo Springs during the Civil War with white cattlemen seeking a new range. He knew Billy the Kid, King Fisher, and other noted bad men of the border. (Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, Washington D.C. was the first place in the country where slaves were freed by the federal government.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, freeing the district’s 3,100 slaves. The legislation was hint of slavery’s coming death in the United States — only 8 1/2 months later Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is–’tis he who has endured,” John Little, a fugitive slave who had escaped to Canada said in reflection of the realities of slavery in 1855.


Sarah Gudger, photograph between 1936 and 1938. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

From 1936-1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery were recorded and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves were collected. The first-person stories and photographs were assembled in 1941 into a 17-volume collection that is available online today courtesy of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress.

Here’s a look at some of the photographs from “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938” and portraits of former slaves taken by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration.


Orelia Alexia Franks, Beaumont, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Mary Crane , 82, in Mitchell, Ind. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Willis Winn, near Marshall, Tex. in 1939. Winn sits with a hornthat slaves were called with. (Lee, Russell Lee/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Andrew Moody and wife Tildy in Orange, Tex. in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Mammy Prater, said to be 115, who inspired ” Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” by Dionne Brand. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The Rev. Bill Green, in San Antonio, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Clara Brim, in Beaumont, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Patsy Moses, in Waco, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Henry Robinson, photographed between 1937 and 1938. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the District of Columbia Emancipation Act happened 154 years ago, in fact it happened 153 years ago. 

Anne Farrar and Bronwen Latimer contributed to this post.