On April 16, 1862, an Act of Congress freed every slave in the District of Columbia. The law, coming a year after the outbreak of the Civil War, was the first direct blow to slaveholding, preceding the Emancipation Proclamation by several months. At last, the federal government had moved to end the shameful practice of slavery, which until this date had been legal in the nation’s capital.
The DC measure laid out a model of emancipation differing from what transpired in the theater of war. Emancipation in the District was a legal process, whereby slaveholders explicitly renounced their claims to the lifetime labor of slaves whom they had purchased. The owners received a compensation of $300 per slave, while the former slaves received documentation establishing their free state. Did the explicit nature of this process mitigate the anger and resentment that welled up in slaveholders when their “property” became free? The legal process acknowledged the slaveholders’ monetary loss, even as it ended the practice of slaveholding, recasting it as the immoral, exploitive, and disgraceful thing that it was.
The legislation gave slaveholders an incentive to record the stories of every slave they owned. The law required them to present petitions, which detailed the appearance, history, and occupations of each slave and the transactions that brought them to Washington DC. Such documents supply unusually vivid pen-portraits of the some 3,100 blacks who obtained their freedom in Washington City.
For example, the claim papers of one DC resident, dry-goods merchant Emanuel Dorsey Etchison, sought compensation for two teenage slaves who were now legally free. Etchison describes having purchased a claim to the labor and services of the two for life, when he acquired “Joseph Mason” from R. H. Harrison of Baltimore for $825 on April 6, 1861. Etchison likewise acquired “Frank” [no last name] from J. Hill of Baltimore for $750 on 30 March 1861.
Frank was 17 and Joseph, 15, when they were freed. Etchison averred that since their purchase, the value of the two young laborers had appreciated. He put the value of the labor of Frank at one thousand dollars, Frank being “a valued and experienced hotel servant without any defect or infirmity.” Joseph Mason’s value had also increased to the same amount, “he being a trusty and faithful office servant, without any infirmity or defect.”
The 17-year-old Frank was described as being of “dark copper color, five feet high, with a high forehead, snow white teeth, . . . free and polite in conversation, and perfectly healthy.” Joseph Mason, at 15 years old, was “four feet five inches high and strongly built for his age” but “with a rather grum countenance when spoken to” and a small scar running lengthwise “barely perceptible” above his left brow. The tone of Etchison’s claim is not unlike what I imagine an effective slave trader’s would be. The boys are presented as healthy, good workers and therefore valuable, but Etchison’s banal way of describing them points up their unnatural condition and the inevitably traumatic transactions that led to each boy’s separation from family and home.
What happened to these two youths, ripped from their roots, then suddenly freed on the verge of adulthood? The poignance of Etchison’s pen-portrait comes from its limited scope. It’s a snapshot of Joseph and Frank with scarcely a clue to their pasts and nothing of what became of them afterwards. This fragment conveys the awful transience, isolation, and insecurity intrinsic to chattel slavery.
Whereas Frank and Joseph’s former master got paid when they were liberated, they received no compensation for the value of the labor that they had been obliged to give to Etchison and others. The irreparable harm every slave suffered by virtue of being enslaved was never counted as a loss. The Congress viewed slaves as benefiting from the gift of liberty, but never were slaves frankly compensated for what the condition of lifelong bondage had taken from them.
The meager terms of emancipation were, in that sense, a perverse confirmation of slaves’ worthlessness, a fresh instance of white America’s incapacity to see freedmen as anything but a pitiable and inferior class. When it is said that the slaves received “nothing but freedom,” every hearer must admit that freedom makes a light dinner, a hard bed, and scant shelter from a storm.
Image: screenshot from this source,
Washington DC, US Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-63
available through subscription on Ancestry.com.
Damani Davis, “Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation’s Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors.” Prologue 2010.