Freedom School Bridges D.C. Emancipation Day’s Past and Present

In commemoration of D.C. Emancipation Day, One DC and We Act Radio hosted a discussion, movie screening and a series of workshops Tuesday centered around the local holiday’s significance in the ongoing fight for educational and housing equity.

The six-hour event, titled “Emancipation Day Freedom School,” took place at THEARC in Southeast and explored April 16, 1862, in the context of African Americans’ 400-year struggle for self-determination, widely believed to have started with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown in 1619.

Keynote presenter and internationally renowned historian C.R. Gibbs schooled an audience of nearly 100 organizers and city residents about the decades of grassroots pressure and institutional pushback that eventually led to the passage and signing of the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed more than 3,000 enslaved Africans in the District less than a year before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“It took more than 30 years. People were beaten for us to get it, and it didn’t stop on April 16, 1862,” Gibbs told The Informer shortly after wrapping up his presentation.

He noted that passing on that knowledge to the next generation remains one of his greatest challenges.

“We continue to get resistance to get the knowledge in the schools about how emancipation occured,” Gibbs said. “We have to [also] have to fight for representation; we can’t take a seat at the table of citizenship if it’s denied to D.C. residents.”

Other activities on Tuesday afternoon allowed for reflection on D.C. history and next steps in addressing inequity in the District.

Veteran breathologist Ayo Handy-Kendi led guests of the Emancipation Day Freedom School in a group meditation, during which she honored the Africans freed in 1862 and those who died during the Maafa, also known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Participants later broke into working groups where they explored the fallacies of average median income (AMI) calculations, brainstormed educational resources and reflected on how much they learned, or didn’t learn, about racism in traditional school settings.

At the end of the night, the audience watched a screening of the newly released documentary “What Happened 2 Chocolate City?” before engaging in dialogue with director Mignotae Kebede.

“Every year, we commemorate D.C. Emancipation Day. This year, we want to [also] commemorate 400 years of inequality starting from Jamestown, and tie the history of emancipation with the first arrival of enslaved Africans,” said Kelly Iradukunda, key organizer of the Emancipation Day Freedom School and ONE DC’s People’s Platform, a compilation of solutions to issues affecting long-term residents, single mothers, returning citizens, and other marginalized groups.

Iradukunda said the “What Happened 2 Chocolate City?” plays a role in galvanizing people to fight against the external forces perpetuating inequality.

“The film screening shows the housing and income issues that people of color face in the District today,” she said. “We have to get people who are directly impacted [by inequality] to fight for their rights and what they deserve.”

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.

Since 1997, long before gentrification grappled the District, ONE DC, formerly Manna DC, has worked to enable members of affected communities to self-advocate.

For ONE DC member Robert Warren, the time has well passed for speaking about mass displacement. He said that he hoped that Tuesday’s discussion would induce some concerted action geared toward Black Washingtonians’ collective economic prosperity.

“We need to have this conversation with the generation of Washingtonians who experienced Jim Crow and the destruction that didn’t allow them to raise their families out of poverty,” said Warren, director of the People for Fairness Coalition, an advocate for universal housing.

“Gentrification is class warfare, and we focus on history [too often],” Warren said. “That doesn’t matter when we need solutions to heal our community. We go off of feelings and not consider how we raise families and build wealth. How do we own and operate business? The education piece is part of it and young people need to be engaged.”

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