Compensated Emancipation: What is the value of a person? A glimpse of slaves’ lives emerges from 1862 emancipation documents
Records posted online this week present an emerging portrait of the 3,000 slaves who lived in the District of Columbia in 1862, making broadly accessible for the first time an official account of the name, approximate age, gender, and, sometimes, occupation of a substantial community of enslaved Americans near the start of the Civil War.
The documents record the often painful history of the implementation of the Compensated Emancipation Act, which ordered all slaves in the District of Columbia to be freed and their owners compensated. A huge bound volume recording the activities of D.C. commissioners charged with carrying out the law lists eighteen-year-old Mary Finick, for example, as a “stout healthy girl, [who] has not been confined to her bed a day since I have owned her, which has been upwards of seven years. “
The act was the first time the government had officially liberated any group of slaves, said U.S Archivist David S. Ferriero. The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the 10 states then in rebellion, followed eight months later.
“Slaves at that time were generally anonymous,” said Kenneth Winkle, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln history professor and co-director of the Civil War Washington project. “In the 1860 census, for example, Southerners objected to providing their slaves’ names as if it would make them more real, more human.”
To date researchers have put online 200 of the roughly 1,000 petitions filed in D.C. by slave-holders seeking compensation in exchange for their slaves’ freedom. These records provide exceptionally rare documentation of an entire community of African Americans, said Winkle. “It is a remarkable story, largely overlooked.”