Advocates for D.C. Emancipation Day Push to Save Paid Day Off

Denise Rolark-Barnes | 4/14/2009, 4:30 p.m.

D.C. Emancipation Day is a testament to the devout commitment of Loretta Carter Hanes, a former D.C. public school teacher who beat the pavement in the late 1980s to revive one of the city€s richest historical celebrations. With her efforts about to be undone by a budget cutting act proposed by Mayor Adrian Fenty, Hanes said her spirits are up.

€My whole soul, mind and body have been revived,€ Hanes told the Informer on Tuesday, just days after being released again from Providence Hospital where she and her husband spend much of their time fighting the ravages of their failing health. But, her voice is light and enthusiastic because of the day she fought so hard to preserve €" April 16 €" Emancipation Day €" has come again.

It was on this day in 1862 that Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act that freed about 3,100 enslaved men and women in the District of Columbia nine months before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an experiment by Lincoln to pay slave owners a fee for every slave they released into freedom, a practice exercised in nearly every country that abolished slavery. In the U.S., however, only the slave owners in the District of Columbia were compensated; others were released from bondage by the Emancipation Act.

Hanes€ supporters of her efforts to make April 16th declared an official holiday in the District of Columbia fondly remembered her efforts at a Community Forum held last Monday at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian. They reminisced on the hard work it took to help her research, circulate petitions, and lobby members of the D.C. City Council to revive what was once one of the city€s largest celebrations.

As a result of Hanes€ efforts, on Jan. 4, 2005 Mayor Anthony Williams declared April 16 an official holiday in the District, following a bill introduced by former D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) and passed by the City Council. Funding in the amount of $500,000 was allocated for Emancipation Day activities including a parade and a community forum, along with other community sponsored activities.

€This city stood as a beacon,€ said Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, of Howard University. €And this community didn€t let the celebration go.€

But in a budget slashing effort, Mayor Adrian Fenty has proposed the elimination of Emancipation Day as a paid holiday for District government employees beginning in 2010. Many observers believe that the holiday was deemphasized immediately after Fenty was inaugurated. He has been accused of €railroading€ the holiday by refocusing it away from its historic significance to linking it to the D.C. voting rights issue.

A search of the District government€s Web site contains information and a full calendar of Emancipation Day activities organized by a host of community organizations. It promotes the Lincoln Bicentennial event honoring Marion Anderson as a D.C. Emancipation Day sponsored event. One attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, however, reported that D.C. Emancipation was not mentioned throughout Sunday€s performance at the Lincoln Memorial.

Statue commemorating Emancipation. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

Anise Jenkins, of Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition, said during Monday€s panel discussion that the Emancipation Day Commission, established by the legislation, has not been functioning for more than two years. €I don€t know if there is anyone still on the commission, €she said.

Peter Hanes, the son of Carter-Hanes believes if city officials invested in Emancipation Day as an event to promote cultural tourism, the financial rewards would follow. He sites Cabana, the largest Caribbean festival held annually in Toronto, Canada, as an example of what D.C. Emancipation Day could become. €D.C. has to take this holiday seriously,€ urged Carter. €If we can invest in the Fourth of July celebration; then we can put emphasis on our own day of freedom,€ he said.

In the meantime, Emancipation holiday supporters are gearing up to testify next week at the D.C. Council budget hearing to help save the day as a city-wide holiday.

Hanes says she is not worried. €Out of every negative there€s a positive,€ she said. €This is an eye opening and educational period for all of those who are beginning to ask what is that holiday, and why he [Fenty] cutting it out€

€Because of this controversy,€ Hanes said, €now people will want to know more about Emancipation Day and the great history we have. I believe everything is going to be alright.€