On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which freed the city’s 3,128 slaves. This came nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to slaves in only parts of the Confederacy still in rebellion.
“I trust I am not dreaming, but the events taking place seem like a dream,” the great orator Frederick Douglass wrote of the act. “Not only a staggering blow to slavery throughout the country, but a killing blow to the rebellion -- and the beginning of the end for both.”
Perhaps this is why the marble federal city built with slave labor in the 1790s has often stood as the political “city on a hill” to the nation’s African Americans. Just as Puritan governor John Winthrop’s biblical image of Boston served as a symbol of “freedom” to many whites in the New World, Washington has served as a beacon to blacks seeking freedom from slavery, Jim Crow and racism.
Clearly, the original Puritan city on a hill proved easier to climb and conquer for white Americans of WASP and Irish-Catholic backgrounds. For generations of blacks born and raised here, and others who migrated, the hill has been steeper to climb and easier to fall off. More