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D.C. Emancipation Day Raises Questions of Economic Viability

As residents, government officials, organizers and artists gear up for D.C. Emancipation Day festivities this weekend, there’s much anticipation around what many predict will be another action-packed celebration along Pennsylvania Avenue and at Freedom Plaza, both located in Northwest.

For some D.C. residents however, not even the commemoration of a historically and culturally significant event could calm what, to them, seems like the never-ending anxiety about their future, and that of the city’s last-standing majority-Black communities.

“Celebration is empty without having a plan to make sure that you are viable,” said ANC Commissioner Mustafa Abdul-Salaam (8C05), also head of Community Economic Development Partners. “I hope that as we’re celebrating emancipation, we’re planning so that we don’t lose that emancipation by being displaced out of a community that we’ve been in for generations.”

Abdul-Salaam, whose constituency includes people living in areas along the South Capitol corridor, revealed his intentions to organize Ward 8 residents around a plan to secure a portion of the $10 billion in development dollars expected to enter the ward within the next few years. Part of that endeavor includes Ward 8’s senior population with whom he has been meeting and planning for two years.

An upcoming community meeting in May will follow an earlier gathering in March at Union Temple Baptist Church where residents broke into working groups focusing on cooperative economic development – a mechanism through which Abdul-Salaam says working-class people can pool resources and maintain a hold on their community.

“In light of emancipation, our focus should be economics,” Abdul-Salaam added. “The fact that we have a significant gap in wealth accumulation shows that emancipation has been just on paper. This is the challenge and opportunity.”

D.C. Emancipation Day commemorates the signing and passage of legislation to free 3,000 enslaved Africans in the District in 1862. Nearly 160 years later, with a surging cost of living, the District has experienced a demographic shift that’s made the term “Chocolate City” more of a misnomer than an affirmation of D.C.’s uniquely-Black culture.

A study released this spring by National Community Reinvestment Coalition determined that 20,000 Black D.C. residents had been displaced between 2000 and 2013. By 2015, Black Washingtonians accounted for less than 50 percent of the population.

“Nothing feels emancipated. We’re the demographic that’s rising with college graduates but still in debt as a race,” said a fourth-generation native Washingtonian who requested anonymity.

Earlier this month, the millennial and photographer struggled for words after learning that her family would have to move out of the District, relocating to nearby Fort Washington.

“Slavery ended in D.C. in 1892 but we’re still feeling its effects,” she said. “I haven’t seen any [substantive] financial success in communities still being underserved. Everything feels unattainable. This is supposed to be a day of freedom; it doesn’t feel like it. Gentrification is a beast.”

A few miles away on Capitol Hill, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) stands in a position to secure statehood for the District, a decades-long battle that has revealed racial and political schisms, some say fueled by D.C.’s one-time status as a majority-Black city.

Last month, the House of Representatives endorsed D.C. statehood, as outlined in Norton’s For the People Act in a 234-193 vote.

Some people, like Sharece Crawford, said they would like to see similar attention given to reparations for descendants of Africans enslaved in the U.S.

Passing H.R. 40, a reparations study bill that’s been in congressional limbo for 30 years, counts among Crawford’s top policy objectives as an at-large D.C. Democratic Party committeewoman.

“There has to be restorative justice for those who’ve struggled the most in this city. If we’re not having this conversation, then we’re missing out,” Crawford said.

During a Democratic presidential candidates town hall, Crawford and other young Democrats pressured Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) to speak about the polarizing topic, to no avail.

As the issue of reparations gains steam nationally, she said she has her sights set on local affairs.

“We want D.C. statehood but [it’s also about] getting Congress to pass H.R. 40, for the study of reparations, that’s been sitting too long,” Crawford said.

“If Congress isn’t going to do it, the D.C. Council needs to introduce it. Unless the council shows up, there won’t be true emancipation.”

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