DC Emancipation Day

The new social studies curriculum now gives 5th grade students an opportunity to learn about the Civil War in depth. Their study weaves together strands of politics, economics, freedom, and military history. Students dive into the stories of people like Henry “Box” Brown, Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglass, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Smalls, William Still, and Harriet Tubman. They also explore an important chapter in local history— the DC Compensated Emancipation Act.
Natalie Stapert, 5th grade teacher and humanities coordinator, was excited to add this unit on the passing of the DC law because it would give her students a more complex understanding of emancipation. “Emancipation didn’t just happen overnight. It was a gradual process over decades,” she explains. The DC Compensated Emancipation Act was also controversial and, therefore, ripe for careful study.


Up until this time Washington, DC, was considered a southern city. It was a slave-holding district and played a major role in the growing internal slave trade. During the 1860s, nearly 2,000 people were enslaved in Washington, but about 10,000 people were trafficked through the area to points father south. The DC Compensated Emancipation Act ended slavery in the district and freed all enslaved people living in or traveling through its borders. It was passed on April 16, 1862—eight months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved in rebellion states on January 1, 1863.

As part of the law, the federal government offered owners $270 for each enslaved person whose estimated lifetime value to the owner was over a thousand dollars. Also controversial were issues of DC statehood and home rule. With so many newly freed slaves in Washington, politicians at the time were wary of giving these citizens the right to vote and the ability to make laws. “If you are a thinking 5th grader, you can’t help but understand the impact it has on our life today,” Natalie reflects.


One of the most challenging ideas students confronted was compensation. They were surprised that the owners would be compensated and not the freed people who had endured years of slavery and forced labor. To wrap their heads around this, students drew on the nuanced understanding of slavery that they developed while studying the Constitution and westward expansion. Already knowing that slavery was both a human rights issue and an economic issue, students learned to clearly articulate the moral imperative to end slavery, as well as the economic structures of labor, profit, and debt that perpetuated the oppressive system.

Studying the DC Compensated Emancipation Act also required students to reevaluate their understanding of President Lincoln, consider the many unknowns newly freed people in DC and elsewhere would have to face, and keep in mind the different ways and places where the debate over emancipation was taking place.

Adding the study of the DC Compensated Emancipation Act to the 5th grade curriculum—which already included units on the Underground Railroad and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—had the additional effect of underscoring an important idea for students: the key to gaining freedom was personal agency. Natalie explains that, Lincoln may have provided legal protection for people seeking freedom, but the people still had to face many risks to achieve it. For many the risks were well worth it.

It was important to Natalie that students learn about the history in their own backyards. None of her students were aware of the DC Emancipation Act, nor was the April 16th DC holiday on their radar. And yet, DC was the first slave-holding area to abolish slavery, and the DC Act, a test balloon of sorts, was the only compensated emancipation plan to apply to civilians. Also, because of the Compensated Emancipation Act and DC’s geographical proximity to slave-holding states, many people migrated to the district for the assurance of freedom, and Washington, DC, became a beacon of black culture.


The 5th grader’s study of the act culminated in a celebration of DC Emancipation Day. Over the two days of the celebration, students:
  • enjoyed a visit from a Civil War reenactor portraying a soldier of African descent;
  • completed a “freedom art” activity;
  • watched a PBS episode of Mercy Street which referenced the contraband camps of recently freed men and women who migrated to DC after the DC Emancipation Act and the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect;
  • and took part in a role play about DC emancipation that Natalie designed.


For the role play she designed for the Emancipation Day celebration, Natalie used scholarly research to create 12 different profiles of real people and institutions representing a variety of points of view on the DC Compensated Emancipation Act—from President Lincoln and DC Mayor James Berrett to the Evening Star (a conservative newspaper), Phillip Reid (a master iron worker), and Elizabeth Keckley (an African American business woman). Each student was assigned a point of view to represent, and the students had to interact with one another to find the answers to questions like:
  1. Who supports emancipation? Why?
  2. Who opposes emancipation? Why?
  3. Who is in power? What do they want?
  4. Who does not have power? What do they want?
  5. Who will gain from emancipation? How will they gain?
  6. Who will lose from emancipation? How will they lose?
  7. Who is talking about money? How is money connected to DC emancipation?
When students did this role play, they realized that what happens in history isn’t inevitable. One student said, “I didn’t realize how much power the newspapers had.” By encountering a variety of perspectives, students could see other possibilities for what might have happened but didn’t. And, they experienced some of the confusion over who would be emancipated, when, and how. The activity also developed students’ empathy. Playing the role of another person, especially someone whose views you don’t agree with, can be hard, but revealing, work.


In recognition of DC Emancipation Day, 5th graders had the opportunity to travel back in time thanks to the stories of a “living historian.” Students listened intently as the American Civil War re-enactor recounted what daily life was like for a soldier of African descent fighting for the Union. Between hot meals and writing letters home to loved ones, much of the day was spent performing drills, he said, preparing for the moment of combat. But, for him and many others, the stakes were very high: they were putting their lives on the line for their own freedom.

Some 5th graders’ jaws dropped in awe as the re-enactor told war stories about the role of women in espionage, eight-year-old drummer boys on the front lines, and camps of refugees fleeing the south, including a large contraband camp that evolved into the famous U Street corridor here in DC. This kind of historical account of the war, retold from the perspective of a soldier, helped students close in on the real-life human experiences of history.

Natalie reflects, “I really appreciated the opportunity to partner with our neighbors at the African American Civil War Museum, who are so knowledgeable and passionate about the people and events in this period. I look forward to working even more closely with them next year to add new lessons about life in the freedom camps in DC during and after the Civil War.”
Lowell School is a private PK-8th grade school located in NW Washington, DC. At Lowell students gain the knowledge, skills, and social-emotional literacy to be the bold leaders and creative problem solvers our world needs.