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Emancipation Day in D. C. Bumps Tax Day


If April 15 is the deadline for filing Federal Income Tax, why is this year’s deadline extended to April 18?

Normally, if the 15th falls on a weekend or a holiday, the deadline is extended to the next work day. This year April 15 was on Saturday, so you might think the due date is Monday, the 17th. Except, it’s not. Tax day is the 18th, because April 16th is Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in Washington, D. C. – The seat of the federal government.


Confused? I am. But then I’m often calendrically impaired. Hmmm. Let’s try a chart.

April 15 Saturday Usual Tax Day
April 16 Sunday Emancipation Day
April 17 Monday Deferred Holiday
April 18 Tuesday Deferred Tax Day




April 16, 1862

Capital Building Under Construction Slavery existed in Washington D.C. until 1862. Slaves cleared the land when the capital city was built. They participated in building the Capitol and White House.

Washington had an active market trading in slaves until the Compromise of 1850 banned the business. Ten years later there were 11,131 free black people and 3,185 slaves in the city.

In 1861 Henry Wilson, a senator from Massachusetts, introduced “An Act for the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia.”  The bill included provisions to compensate slave owners and also to pay newly freed people $100 if they agreed to move to Haiti or Liberia. Most did not.

The Senate passed the bill 29:6 – the House passed it 92:38. Some thought President Lincoln would veto the bill. But slaveowners weren’t willing to take the risk. They took their slaves out of the city.

At 6:00 a.m. On April 16, the same day Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensation Act, an observer noted a wagon filled with enslaved women being led out of the city.

“The wailing of the women will not soon be forgotten by those who heard it.” *


The new law didn’t immediately free anyone. It authorized an Emancipation Commission composed of three men. Owners reported to their office in City Hall, preferably with their slaves. The Commissioners determined the value of each individual and paid the owner after he provided evidence from two witness that he held legal title to the slaves and testified to that he was loyal to the Union. No compensation for Southern sympathizers.

Washington D. C. City Hall & Court House


Free People received a certificate. Former owners got a check and proceeded to the Treasury Department where clerks looked up the claimants’ claim numbers and a cashier gave out the checks. The total amount of compensation came to less than the $1 million appropriated.


Washington D. C. During Emancipation Day Celebration by Nrrosenb.HUMAN FACES

The National Archives holds records detailing the number of slaves freed and the compensation owners received.

Slaveholders in Washington D. C. filed about 1,000 petitions for compensation. The Commissioners kept records. Here’s a sampling.

Mary Finick, her owner claimed, was a “stout healthy girl, [who] has not been confined to her bed a day since I have owned her, which has been upwards of seven years.“ **

Susan Mason, the Commissioner judged, was “old & infirm.” He placed her value at zero.

Union General Lorenzo Thomas claimed $800 for his slave laundress, Lucy Berry, and $100 each for her children, George and Lorenzo. The General received $219 for Lucy and $43.80 for Lorenzo. George had “no value,” presumably due to his young age.

The “Sisters of the Visitation, Georgetown,” listed a dozen slaves. They were allowed $3,774 in compensation.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States became law in 1865, three years after Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensation Act. On January 4, 2005 Emancipation Day became an official public holiday in Washington, D. C.



* Quote taken from David Fiske. Emancipation Day. TheRoot. April 15, 2016.

** Data taken from Michael E. Ruane. D.C. Emancipated Tallied the Price of Freedom. The Washington Post. April 11, 2012. and Judy Havemann. 150 Years Ago: Compensated Emancipation. NEH. April 12, 2012


Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons:

Logo of the Internal Revenue Service. Public Domain

Architect of the Capital. Public Domain.

Washington D. C. During Emancipation Day Celebration. By Nrrosenb. Creative Commons Attribution.

Washington D. C. City Hall and Court House. Public Domain.


For More Information:

History of Emancipation Day.

Leigh Ann Caldwell. What is emancipationDay? CBS News. April 16, 2012

Andrew Glass. Congress Bans Slave Trade in D.C. Politico. Sept 20, 2007.


Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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