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D.C. Celebrates 152nd Anniversary Of Emancipation Day

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The Emancipation Day parade included balloons bearing images of famous civil rights fighters.
WAMU/Jacob Fenston
The Emancipation Day parade included balloons bearing images of famous civil rights fighters.

In D.C., leaders and residents celebrate a holiday today that's unique to the nation's capital — Emancipation Day.

On April 16, 1862, nine months before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he freed the 3,100 slaves living in the District of Columbia.

Today, in commemoration, District schools and government offices are closed. Planned activities include a parade, a concert and fireworks. That parade starts at 11 a.m. and will run down Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Third and 13th streets NW, while the concert will take place at Freedom Plaza at 3 p.m.

The day began with a reminder, from Rev. E. Gail Anderson Holness, to remember the lessons of the past.

"Let us never forget how our ancestors toiled in the heat of the cotton fields and yet were relegated to second-class citizenship," he said.

The yearly holiday is organized by Council member Vincent Orange — he says D.C. emancipation in 1862 marked the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States.

"So we have that little unique history, that we were freed first, here in the nation's capital," Orange said.

Mixed in between the school marching bands in today's parade was group of men and women dressed in Civil War garb, including Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Museum. He harkened back to April 1862.

"Freedom is in the air, and somebody finally reminds President Abraham Lincoln, as president of the United States, you can free the slaves," he said.

Local politicians also took the chance to talk about present-day issues, like D.C. statehood. "We continue to be treated as second-class citizens, even though the slaves were freed 152 years ago," said Mayor Vincent Gray.

Democratic nominee for mayor Muriel Bowser said that like Martin Luther King Day, Emancipation Day should be more than just a day off. But she admitted that after nine years as an official District holiday, it has yet to really catch on with some residents.

"I don't think most Washingtonians really know what the celebration is about," she said.

The funding today's activities was in dispute earlier this week. The D.C. Council has a $350,000 budget for the festivities, but Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) asked the mayor's office for more than $100,000 on top of that to cover overtime costs for police and firefighters.

The mayor's office agreed, but only on the condition the Council relinquish control of Emancipation Day activities in the future.


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