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2016 April27whitehouseThe White House and Capitol were primarily built by slaves, as Washington — which had legal slavery until 1863 — remains a colony. (Photo: Frank Camp)

It is widely known that slaves were the key labor force that built the White House and the US Capitol. The grotesque injustice and horror of slavery is, therefore, literally embedded in the masonry of our nation’s two iconic political symbols.

However, what is more rarely emphasized or even acknowledged in US history text books is that slavery was legal within the District of Columbia right up until Abraham Lincoln signed an emancipation law in DC in 1862. It was signed on April 16, 1862, less than nine months before the national Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

The Washington, D.C. government website devotes a page to the history of slavery in the capital:

One result of the intense struggle over slavery was the DC Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, passed by the Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The act ended slavery in Washington, DC, freed 3,100 individuals, reimbursed those who had legally owned them and offered the newly freed women and men money to emigrate. It is this legislation, and the courage and struggle of those who fought to make it a reality, that we commemorate every April 16, DC Emancipation Day….

The area we know as the District of Columbia was selected as the site for the capital of the United States in 1791. It was created by land ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland, two slave-holding states of the Chesapeake region. The District of Columbia, which included Washington City, Georgetown, Washington County and Alexandria (until 1846), became a center for slavery and the slave trade.

A recent article in The New York Times hauntingly describes an incident that reveals the grim reality of slaveholding in DC. It describes how the prestigious Georgetown University sold 272 slaves in 1838 to bail the DC institution of “higher learning” out of deep dept:

The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

At Georgetown, the Times states, “slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked,” as were commerce, agriculture and labor in the institution of slavery itself.

The infamous slave sale at the Jesuit college was legal at the time that it occurred. However, in the pre-Civil War political skirmishes that took place in the capitol, a settlement was eventually reached that prohibited the trafficking of slaves in DC.

As a result of what has come to be known as the Compromise of 1850 in Congress, according to, the legal sale of slaves in Washington ended:

California was admitted to the Union as the 16th free state. In exchange, the south was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah or New Mexico. Texas lost its boundary claims in New Mexico, but the Congress compensated Texas with $10 million. Slavery was maintained in the nation’s capital, but the slave trade was prohibited. Finally, and most controversially, a “Fugitive State Law” was passed, requiring northerners to return runaway slaves to their owners under penalty of law.

This meant slaves could not be bought and sold in the nation’s capital, but they could be owned. It also allowed Blacks who had become free to reside in Washington.

These details provide insight into the racist, slave-sanctioning history of Washington, DC. Also, keep in mind that DC — whose majority population has been Black for decades — is not permitted to have two senators or a voting member in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, many of the laws passed by its city council can be overridden by Congress. (Residents of DC can vote for president, however.)

As the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights explains on its website:

Why are the residents of our nation’s capital denied voting representation in Congress and the same measure of home rule as other Americans? This denial of basic democratic rights began because, instead of being part of a state, Washington, D.C. was a federal district – the District of Columbia (the “D.C.” in Washington, D.C.). And, for the past half century or more, African Americans have made up a majority of the residents of Washington, D.C., which may have prompted some of the opposition to providing the nation’s capital with voting representatives in the U.S. Congress….

Under a limited form of “home rule,” Congress can overturn all the laws passed by Washington’s elected city council, all the actions of its elected mayor, and even all the interpretations of its laws by D.C. judges. In most cities, the basic law establishing their municipal government is a city charter, which was written by the people’s elected representatives. But in Washington, D.C., the charter was enacted by Congress and can’t even be amended without Congress’ approval. Similarly, Congress must approve Washington, D.C.’s annual budget, including spending of the residents’ own local tax dollars.

Just as racism is a virus that destroys communities and lives throughout the United States, our nation’s capital is a living incarnation of the legacy of slavery that evolved into unresolved structural and attitudinal racism after the Civil War. If Washington DC, were 95 percent white in population (and it is rapidly becoming gentrified, with people of color being displaced out of their neighborhoods), DC would be a state.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.