"...in view from the windows of the Capitol, a sort of negro-livery stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to Southern markets ...had been openly maintained for fifty years." Abraham Lincoln (1846)
Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million captive Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean bound for enslavement. Of these, more than 389,000 were transported directly to what became the United States, landing in ports from Boston to New Orleans. Of those, nearly one third (129,000) were brought through Washington, DC and nearby Maryland and Virginia ports. These enslaved Africans built much of the new capital including many of the nation's monuments, including the U.S. Capitol, and the White House.
Strategically located along major water and railroad routes, Washington, DC was a trade and transportation hub. At least seven major slave pens stood in the city, that served temporary imprisonment of enslaved people until transport south by ship could be arranged. Many visitors expressed disgust at the sight of slave coffles-slaves bound together by chains for transport-as well as the holding pens n the young nation's capital. In 1846, a newly elected Illinois congressman named Abraham Lincoln commented on a slave jail visible from his Capitol Hill boarding house "...in view
from the windows of the Capitol, a sort of negro-livery stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, finally taken to Southern markets ...had been openly maintained for fifty years."
All people of African descent, enslaved as well as free, lived in a perpetual state of vulnerability. Those who were held in bondage feared being sold and separated from family and loved ones. Free Blacks were required to carry a copy of their "certificate of freedom," and to show it upon demand. Without proof of status, free Blacks could be jailed at any time or sold into slavery. Even if they ultimately proved their free status, detained Blacks were responsible for paying for the cost of their imprisonment at a slave pen or they could be enslaved all over again.
Enacted on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in the confederate states. However, nine months earlier, on April 16, 1862, President Lincoln had enacted the District of Columbia's Compensated Emancipation Act. This law abolished slavery in the District and provided monetary compensation to former slaveholders. The act freed over 3,000 people in Washington, DC.
From 1866 to 1901, April 16 was celebrated as a public holiday in Washington, DC. In 2004, the Council of the District of Columbia reinstated Emancipation Day as an official holiday.