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"Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, . . . April 19, 1866," wood engraving by Frank Dielman, Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866

Sharon Gang, Communications & Marketing Manager for the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) explores the CVC’s new exhibit, Conflict and Compromise.

Every time there is a new display of documents and artifacts in the Exhibition Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), I make a point of examining the display closely for my favorite items.

As a Washington, D.C. native, I was immediately drawn to the “Freedom” section on the front wall of Exhibition Hall where all of the documents and artifacts from the just-opened “Conflict and Compromise” exhibit are presented. In this section, there are four documents that relate to the D.C. Emancipation Act. When I worked for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2005, he signed legislation that made Emancipation Day an official public holiday in the District. I learned a bit about its history at that time, and more since I began working at the Capitol Visitor Center five years ago. I learned that the D.C. Emancipation Act figures prominently in the story about the building of the Capitol.

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this law came 8 1/2 months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The legislation provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing emigration.

Over the next 9 months, a 3-person Board of Commissioners who were appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.

Although its combination of emancipation, compensation to owners, and colonization did not serve as a model for the future, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was an early signal that the end of slavery was near for our country. In the District itself, African Americans greeted emancipation with great jubilation.

Congress finally ended all slavery in the United States with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865.

The CVC’s Exhibits and Education Division worked with lenders including the Natural History Museum, Library of Congress and the National Archives to collect the documents and artifacts in the new display and to create supports for them that are aesthetically pleasing and showcase the fragile historic objects. There is much more to enjoy and explore beyond the D.C. Emancipation Act items in this exhibit.

Exhibition Hall is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. No passes are needed to visit Exhibition Hall which is located on the lower level of the CVC, near the model of the Statue of Freedom. If you can't come in person, be sure to check the exhibit out online.

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