D.C. Emancipation Act, April 1862

Primary documents — including diaries, photographs and eyewitness accounts — provide insight into the history of slavery in the District of Columbia and Lincoln's decision to end slavery in D.C. The D.C. Emancipation Act was the first step towards equality and enfranchisement of the modern Civil Rights Movement. 
Download Classroom Worksheets (PDF) 

Slavery existed in the nation's capital from the very beginning of the city's history in 1790, when Congress created the federal territory from lands formerly held by the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. The D.C. Emancipation Act was the first of many steps toward equality and enfranchisement for African American citizens — the "beginning of the end" as Frederick Douglass would write.

Contained within this guide are suggested activities for teaching “An Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia,” known as the D.C. Emancipation Act. Primary documents, questions to direct discussion of the documents, Washington Post articles, and resources for additional study are provided.

In addition to the suggested activities in the lesson, teachers are provided a second resource guide, "The Jim Crow South: Paving the Way for the Modern Civil Rights Movement," that focuses on the periods of Presidential Reconstruction and Radical Reconstruction, Black Codes  and Jim Crow laws, and Plessy v. Ferguson

D.C. Emancipation Act of 1862
Resource Graphic 

Prepare a Timeline
Social Studies,  U.S. History

Students might prepare a timeline of slavery in the Colonies, United States and/or the District of Columbia. If teachers focus only on D.C., begin with establishment of the federal district on July 16, 1790, when Congress authorized President George Washington to select a permanent site for the capital city.

Introduce students to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, of the U.S. Constitution that was adopted on September 15, 1787:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;


Meet the People
English, Social Studies, U.S. History 

Approach the study of emancipation in Washington, D.C., through the individuals who were involved in the District of Columbia’s establishment, development into a slave-holding and slave auction center, and employment as a political battlefield over emancipation.

Individuals who might be researched include:

     Benjamin Banneker
     Frederick Douglass
     William Lloyd Garrison
     Thomas Jefferson
     Pierre Charles L’Enfant
     Abraham Lincoln
     Philip Reid
     Sojourner Truth
     Harriett Tubman
     George Washington
     Theodore Dwight Weld
     Phyllis Wheatley
     Senator Henry Wilson (Mass.)


Review Historic Background
Social Studies, U.S. History

“Slavery in the District of Columbia” gives a quick overview of slavery being introduced in the Colonies and established in the District of Columbia. If teachers have time, further study can be done using the sources listed, reading suggested books and exploring additional research.

This historic overview gives the foundation needed to prepare for a more in-depth study of the Emancipation Act and resulting petitions for manumission.


Museums to Learn About Slavery
Resource Graphic 

Read a Transcript
Civics, Social Studies, Government, U.S. History 

With an understanding of the cultural, political and economic framework and conditions of slavery in the states and D.C., students should be ready to comprehend the impact of the D.C. Emancipation Act.

“I trust I am not dreaming, but the events taking place seem like a dream,” the orator Frederick Douglass wrote of the D.C. Emancipation Act. “Not only a staggering blow to slavery throughout the country, but a killing blow to the rebellion — and the beginning of the end for both.”

The National Archives transcript of “An Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia” is included in D.C. Emancipation. It may also be read online in the Featured Documents of the National Archives & Records Administration. The questions that are included in the D.C Emancipation guide after the transcription may be discussed as each section is read or after the whole document is completed.


View a Video
Civics, Social Studies, Government, U.S. History, Visual Arts

Go to the National Archives site or to “Inside the Vaults” to view the video, “National Archives Shares Rarely-Seen Petitions from DC Emancipation Act.” In the video,  archivists Damani Davis and Robert Ellis and University of  Nebraska-Lincoln scholar Kenneth Winkle take viewers inside the vaults and research rooms at the Archives for an overview of the D.C. Emancipation Act, the petitions and Supplemental Act.

Questions that may be asked include:
1. What were owners of slaves in D.C. required to do in 1862?
2. Why did some slaves flee to Maryland before the Emancipation Act was passed?
3. What kind of information is found on the petitions or schedules?
4. Why was the Supplemental Act  passed July 12, 1862, at Lincoln’s urging?     

Study Petitions
Civics, Social Studies, Government, U.S. History

Frederick Douglass wrote, that the D.C. Emancipation Act was “a priceless and an unspeakable blessing” for those it freed and “the first great step towards that righteousness which exalts a nation.” Who were these individuals who were blessed and manumitted?

Within the records of the National Archives are the petitions and schedules submitted to the Clerk of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. With permission of the National Archives we have reprinted the Petition of Clark Mills. Read through each document to get a picture of Mr. Mills and the slaves he is freeing.

Discussion questions are provided to guide reading of the documents. See “Study the D.C. Emancipation Act Petitions.”

For additional information on using the documents, read "Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation's Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors" in The National Archives' Prologue Magazine.

Read About Slavery for Young Readers

Get to Know Philip Reid
Art, Journalism, Social Studies, Government, U.S. History

Read The Washington Post article, “Slave named Philip Reid helped create Statue of Freedom that sits atop Capitol.” Guy Gugliotta tells the stories of the creation of the Statue of Freedom, the involvement of the slave Philip Reid in the project and the D.C. Emancipation Act.

Students may also enjoy viewing the historic cartoons video that is based on Flashbacks, A Cartoon History of The District of Columbia. They will learn how Philip Reid became the person to supervise the casting of the bronze statue in Mills’ bronze foundry in Bladensburg.

Draw Upon History
Art, Journalism, Social Studies, U.S. History, Visual Arts

Use Flashbacks by Patrick M. Reynolds as a model for students to relate historic events and individuals through cartoon panels. Flashbacks is published each Sunday in The Washington Post’s Sunday Comics section.

Student groups could be assigned segments of D.C. history from 1800 to 1900 to research, summarize and put into cartoon panels to tell the story. Students could relate the history of slavery and emancipation, of freedmen and indentured servants, or of individuals and different types of employment.

Check the Facts
Journalism, Media Literacy

A journalist is a reporter, a researcher, an editor and a writer. In “Think Like a Journalist” students are asked to be researcher, editor and writer.

Read what the reporter wrote. A reporter is to be unbiased, accurate and clear in his or her reporting. Do you understand what Guy Gugliotta wrote?

Read original documents — the Petition of Clark Mills. Does additional research in the files of the National Archives change what a reporter has written?

Remember — and Celebrate?
Character Education, English, Journalism, Media Arts, Music, Social Studies, U.S. History 

April 16 is a holiday in the District of Columbia. How can it be a day of remembrance and celebration? Here are some suggestions to stimulate projects and activities in your school:
• Read the D.C. Emancipation Act. Work with students to prepare an interpretive reading.
• Give art students the D.C. Emancipation Act. Ask them to illustrate the story of slavery and what this document meant to slaves, slave owners and abolitionists.
• Read slave narratives, the works of abolitionists and writings from the time period. Select passages to read in a public performance. Begin with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861; My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass; and Amistad.
• Prepare a musical program to tell the story of slavery and emancipation. Include works by D.C. musicians.
• Read about D.C.-born poets, musicians and writers. Also, become familiar with D.C. Renaissance writers. [LINK to previous NIE DC Renaissance guide] Select pieces to include in a reading.
• Broadcast, journalism and Media Arts students could report on programs presented in their school.
• Broadcast and Media Arts students could work on a three- to five-minute short feature to inform the student community about Lincoln’s decision to enact the D.C. Emancipation Act and what it meant to people in the District of Columbia at that time.
• Arrange for a guest speaker to tell how to research genealogy.
• The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has funded two digital projects: The Freedman and Southern Society Project and Visualizing Emancipation. Although its student writing contest is over, follow its guidelines to respond to or to reinterpret one of the historical documents. 
• Prepare a display case to tell the story of slavery and emancipation. Include the Underground Railroad and abolitionists.


Reconstruct Life After the Civil War
Social Studies, U.S. Government, U.S. History 

To supplement a study of the D.C. Emancipation Act, the main focus of this curriculum guide, teachers are given a second resource guide. An overview of the history of African American enfranchisement after the Civil War and the path to achieving civil rights is presented in Jim Crow South. Beginning in 1865 with President Andrew Johnson's Presidential Reconstruction and the former Confederate states' laws, known as the Black Codes, students have a jumping off point to discuss and do further research.

The Radical Reconstruction period moved enfranchisement forward until the disputed election of 1876. Approximately 1,500 African Americans held public office in southern states in the period. Filling a vacant seat, Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress; Blanche Kelso Bruce was the first to be elected to a full term. At the same time, Jim Crow laws, hate groups and intimidation of poll taxes and literacy tests were established. The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson is considered in light of the "separate but equal" doctrine that would prevail until 1954. The descendants' personal continuation of Plessy v. Ferguson may be found in the newspaper account, "Plessy and Ferguson unveil plaque today marking their ancestors' actions."

The resource guide includes a look at contemporary enfranchisement considerations of voter identification laws and early voting. 

Washington Post columnist Colbert King wrote about parallels between the 2012 voter identification laws and the reconstruction period of Andrew Johnson. Read and discuss his column, "Romney: The new Andrew Johnson?"

Post NIE Guide Editor & Writer | Carol Lange
Post NIE Guide Art Editor | Carol Porter

In The Know 
 Abolish  Put to an end
Affadavit of Freedom Official records of proof certifying the status of free blacks
Compensation Money or other payment given to pay for loss, damage or work done
Document Written proof
Domestic service Work within the household, as opposed to field work
Emancipation Freedom from slavery
Endentured Contractually committed to work as an apprentice or servant for a specified period
Manumit To free somebody from slavery; noun: manumission
Petition A formal request, submitted to a court or a government agency
Slave Person who is forced to work for another person without wages and is regarded as property
Slavery A state of bondage in which African Americans (and some Native Americans) were owned by other people, usually white, and forced to labor on their behalf
Status Category a person has been assigned and the kind of privileges received at that designation
Writ of habeas corpus Court order instructing those accused of detaining another individual unjustly to bring the detainee before the court

ANSWERS. View a Video
1. Document ownership of slaves they owned and establish their value.
2. They feared they would be forced to move to Africa.
3. Names, ages, descriptions and estimated valued
4. Many slave owners did not want to give up their slaves, even if compensation was given. The Supplemental Act allowed slaves themselves to petition for their own freedom. Petitions for 161 persons were submitted.

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

U.S. History and Geography I: Students explain that some Africans came to America as indentured servants who were released at the end of their indentures, as well as those who came as captives to slavery (9. G,E,S, Grade 8)

U.S. History and Geography I: Students analyze the issue of slavery, including the early and steady attempts to abolish slavery and realize the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. (8.10, Grade 8)

D.C. History & Government: Students describe the effect the Civil War had on life in Washington, DC, and they explain the effects of Compensated Emancipation and the Emancipation Proclamation on the city.
1. Describe how the Union Army transformed the city into an armed camp.
2. Describe the conflicting loyalties of people living in the city.
4. Explain the participation of white and black residents in the Union and Confederate armies.

Social Studies: Students analyze the unique roles and responsibilities of the three branches of government as established by the U.S. Constitution
2. Explain the process through which the Constitution can be amended.  (Principles of U.S. Government, Grade 12, 12.3)

Mathematics: Use the four operations to solve word problems involving distances, intervals of time, liquid volumes, masses of objects, and money, including problems involving simple fractions or decimals, and problems that require expressing measurements given in a larger unit in terms of a smaller unit. (Measurement & Date, 4.MD.2)

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Social Studies: Analyze the historic events, documents, and practices that are the foundations of our political systems
c. Explain the significance of principles in the development of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Preamble, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (Standard 1.0, Grade 5)

Political Science: Explain how the United States government protected or failed to protect the rights of individuals and groups (Standard 1.0, Topic C, Indicator 2, Grade 8)
a. Describe significance and effects of the Emancipation Proclamation

Political Science: Analyze the impact of historic documents and practices that became the foundations of the American political system during the early national period (1.0,Indicator 2, Grade 8)
    g. Evaluate the significance of the Civil War Amendments (13th, 14th and 15th) and how they protected individual rights

Political Science: Examine the principle of due process (Standard 1, Topic C, Indicator 3, Grade 8)
a. Identify how due process of law protects individuals
b. Describe the due process protections in the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

Social Studies: Explain the political, cultural, economic and social changes in Maryland during the early 1800s
b. Describe the importance of changes in industry, transportation, education, rights and freedoms in Maryland, such as roads and canals, slavery, B&O railroad, the National Road, immigration, public schools, and religious freedom (History, Grade 4)

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Virginia, U.S. History: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and their importance as major turning points in American history by
b) identifying the major events and the roles of key leaders of the Civil War Era, with emphasis on Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass; 
d) examining the political and economic impact of the war and Reconstruction, including the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (VUS 7)
e) examining the social impact of the war on African Americans, the common soldier, and the home front, with emphasis on Virginia 


Virginia, U.S. History: The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability to
a) identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents, records, and data, including artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, journals, newspapers, historical accounts, and art, to increase understanding of events and life in the United States;
c) forumulate historical questions and defend findings, based on inquiry and interpretation;
i) identify the costs and benefits of specific choices made, including the consequences, both intended and unintended, of the decisions and how people and nations responded to positive and negative incentives. (Skills, VUS.1)

Common Core Standards 

Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12: Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes and rhetorical features. (Grades 11-12, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, 9)