GU Scholars Reflect on D.C. Emancipation History
April 17, 2012 – Georgetown history professors Maurice Jackson (G’95, G’01) and Chandra Manning chronicled the ebb and flow of slavery and freedom for blacks in Washington, D.C., during today’s commemoration of President Lincoln’s signing the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.
The act freed 3,100 people in the District of Columbia nine months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Georgetown’s event was part a month of commemorations the city has planned for the 150th anniversary of the signing, which took place on April 16.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray also spoke at Georgetown this morning, charging the university and Washington residents to “redouble and renew” efforts for D.C. representation in Congress.
Equality and Justice
“One hundred and fifty years ago, while hailing emancipation in Washington, D.C., Frederick Douglass said that ‘the negro is not abolished as a degraded caste,’ " said Jackson, a Georgetown associate professor of history and African American studies and affiliated professor of performing arts in jazz. “He urged the continued fight for social and economic equality and justice.”
But Jackson also lamented the shrinking African American population in D.C. and said that “today many blacks who were born here or moved here for a better life cannot afford to live here and are in effect driven out.”
He also noted that the income of the average white family in D.C. is $101,000, while black families earn an average of $39,000.
Even shortly after the 1862 act passed, Jackson notes that Congress established a $600,000 fund that included $100,000 to help blacks to emigrate to Haiti or Liberia or “such other country beyond the limits of the United States.”
“The goal was to rid the District of free blacks,” said Jackson, the author of Let This Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
More disturbing was Lincoln’s speech to Congress in December 1862, the professor notes.
Jackson quoted the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation as saying, “There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position to the white race.”
The Georgetown alumnus is now working on a book called Halfway to Freedom: African-Americans in Washington, D.C., which will cover all phases of African American life in Washington, D.C. He is on sabbatical from Georgetown as a 2011-2012 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and will return to teach in the fall.
Manning, author of the prize-winning What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (Knopf, 2007) is working on a book about Civil War contraband camps, freed blacks’ post-Civil War migration and the struggle over the meaning of citizenship in 19th-century America.
“One of the most important factors was that the [Civil War] brought the United States government into direct contact with individual people in new ways, including, for the first time, large numbers of black people,” Manning said during the commemoration.
She explained that contraband camps, as they were known, were refugee camps for fleeing slaves that sprang up wherever the Union Army went. Two of the camps, which were typically marked by overcrowding and disease, were in D.C.
“Contraband camps provided Union soldiers the opportunity to interact with, and often come to rely on, the African Americans in the camps,” she said. “When they did so, Union soldiers confronted not just the abstract of slavery, but the real lives of enslaved men, women and children.”
The commemoration also included Gray presenting the Sesquicentennial Proclamation to President John J. DeGioia, and the presentation of several songs by the Georgetown University Gospel Choir, including the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”