The buying and selling of Black slaves in the District of Columbia came to an official end in 1850, though it had no effect on slavery itself. For more than a decade longer, however, slaves continued to be bought and sold with little, if any, interference. By then, slaves in the District numbered 2,113, while the “free” Blacks numbered 8,158, and the white population amounted to 29,730. As the chains loosened, the legal strictures tightened as fearful whites anticipated ominous consequences of the impending Black “freedom.” The Fugitive Slave Act, introduced by Northerners and passed by Congress, gave white slave owners the right to pursue their freedom-seeking African slaves all over the country. Stringent penalties were imposed on “free” Blacks in the District and Black/white tensions increased.
Congress finally considered emancipation seriously only when the Civil War cast the nation’s future in doubt. Even then, other options were advanced that, it was felt, must accompany emancipation. A letter written by Mary Bowen, wife of a future mayor of the city, was representative of white thought: “No sane-minded man acquainted with the black population South could wish them liberated and allowed to remain in the States.”
On April 16, 1862, President Lincoln approved an Act of Congress prohibiting slavery in the District of Columbia (the so-called Emancipation Proclamation came 9 months later) and providing monetary compensation of $300 per slave for the slave-owners. Congress appropriated $100,000 and appointed a commission to oversee the process. A Baltimore slave-dealer was hired to estimate the value of individual slaves, who, when the value was in doubt, would examine their teeth; some elderly or sickly Blacks were appraised to have “no value at all.” The money was so good that even some Blacks applied and were paid under this process. No commission was established and no funds appropriated to compensate the Black African slaves for their unpaid lifetime labor.
But white people in the District were not happy with this “Emancipation Bill.” They wanted “safeguards against converting this city into an asylum for free Negroes, a population undesirable in any community.” Lincoln tried sending 450 “freed” slaves to an island off the coast of Haiti in a failed colonization effort. The navy was sent to retrieve the beleaguered Africans, who were then settled in Arlington.
Soon after the “emancipation” news spread among the Africans in the District region, the worst fears of the whites were realized. Blacks from all over converged on the capital. “I wants to stay around where the President lives. I figure if he eats, I’ll eat,” reasoned one Black man who’d heard just a rumor of emancipation. Four hundred ex-slaves camped in what was called “Duff Green’s Row” on Capitol Hill behind the present Library of Congress; four thousand in the “Camp Barker,” near what is today Logan Circle in northwest Washington. Ten thousand crammed into “Murder Bay” (between 13th and 15th Streets and Ohio Avenue and the canal), and into “Foggy Bottom” below Georgetown. The local newspaper captured the feelings of most white folks:
INFLUX OF CONTRABANDS. Just about these days there seems to be quite an influx of strange colored persons in our city. Each is telling some large story about his escape from slavery and his sufferings. These persons come here expecting to be taken care of by ‘white folks,’ and disappointed in that expectation, resort to means for a living not countenanced in this community. Two or three of the species were before the police magistrate this morning, and were summarily disposed of by sending them to the penitentiary. They are only placed where they can earn a living, and not sponge it out of citizens.
By the end of the Civil War forty thousand ex-slaves had relocated to an area that was wholly unfit for human survival. The Black percentage of Washington’s population climbed rapidly from 19% in 1860 to 30% in 1867.
This “DC freedom” came with a heavy price, as nearly one-third perished from starvation and disease. Those who survived faced a difficult struggle. The 400-year dream, longed-for by Blacks through the generations, was, at first, bittersweet.