A guide to Emancipation Day in D.C.

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By Caroline Que

Ah, April in Washington: The weather is great, the flowers are blooming, and the tourists have yet to mount their annual invasion of Metro and the Mall. But you're stuck at the office, enduring the brutal Presidents Day-to-Memorial Day slog with nary a three-day weekend in sight.

What? What's that? What's that you say? You say Monday is Emancipation Day?*

That's right, D.C. workers and students — get ready for a day of play and political action. Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in the nation's capital. For the 16,000 people who recently moved to D.C., here's a primer on a long-celebrated but only recently officialized holiday with implications for taxpayers everywhere.

Turning point in history

On April 16, 1862 — almost nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, sometimes known as the Compensated Emancipation Act. The highlight of the legislation:

... all persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African descent are hereby discharged and freed of and from all claim to such service or labor ...

The act also provided compensation to former slave owners who pledged their loyalty to the Union (up to $300 per freed slave) and appropriated $100,000 for "to aid in the colonization and settlement of such free persons of African descent now residing in said District ... as may desire to emigrate to the Republics of Hayti or Liberia, or such other country beyond the limits of the United States as the President may determine."

(News traveled fast, even in 1862. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was editor of a newspaper in New York at the time. On April 16, he telegraphed Lincoln: "The Independent goes to press at 2 oclock PM this day Wednesday. May I say that the district of Columbia is free territory?")

You can see the original act at the Capitol Visitor Center, where it is on display through Sept. 9. The center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

A celebration revived — and recognized

A sketch of the fourth anniversary of the D.C. Emancipation Act by F. Dielman, Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866. (Library of Congress)
A sketch of the fourth anniversary of the D.C. Emancipation Act by F. Dielman, Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866. (Library of Congress)

The District was quick to celebrate Emancipation Day. On April 19, 1866, "approximately 5,000 people marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, past 10,000 cheering spectators, to Franklin Square for religious services and speeches by prominent politicians. Two of the black regiments that had gained distinction in the Civil War led the procession," according to the Library of Congress. The illustration of that parade at right is from Harper's Weekly.

"An elaborate parade that included sitting presidents was celebrated from 1866 to 1901," the Washington Post reported. Some informal observances persisted in the 1900s, but it wasn't until 2002 that formal celebrations resumed.

In 2000, the Post reported, the D.C. council designated April 16 as District of Columbia Emancipation Day, creating "a private holiday, which allows city workers to use any paid or unpaid leave to celebrate the day." Then-D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed in 2004 that the holiday be made public, and then-Mayor Anthony Williams signed the legislation in 2005 to formalize that designation — and officially revive the annual parade.

Modern interpretation

In 2007, then-mayor Adrian Fenty dedicated Emancipation Day to raising awareness about D.C. residents' lack of full congressional representation. Advocacy group DC Vote says Emancipation Day is "also a time to remember that DC residents still lack the full democracy and freedom that all other Americans enjoy. We remain second-class citizens with no vote in a Congress that retains the power to interfere in our local matters."

Implications for the federal tax deadline

April 16, you're thinking ... doesn't that come near another date I should remember? That's right: Emancipation Day is the day after the standard federal tax filing deadline of April 15. But because D.C. holidays affect tax deadlines the same way federal holidays do, Emancipation Day moves the deadline in some years.

This year, for example, April 15 falls on a Sunday, which means tax returns don't have to be postmarked until April 16. But April 16 is a D.C. holiday, which means taxpayers have until Tuesday, April 17, to postmark returns, leaving you two whole extra days to deal with your W2s and 1040s.

If you're the type of person who likes to plan your procrastination, be aware that D.C. holidays that fall on a Saturday are celebrated on the preceding Friday, and D.C. holidays that fall on a Sunday are celebrated the following Monday.

Emancipation Day events

If you're not working on your taxes, check out some of the many events commemorating the emancipation. Below is a sampling of events, but more comprehensive listings are available here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Emancipation Day Parade
11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pennsylvania Avenue NW, between Third Street and 14th Street

Cultural Tourism Emancipation Day Scavenger Hunt
All day
More information

Emancipation Day Street Festival and Fireworks
11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Freedom Plaza, E Street NW between 13th and 14th streets

*Apologies to Shel Silverstein.