Damani Davis shows how to use federal records to explore the lives of African American ancestors from Washington, DC.
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Slavery and Emancipation in the Nation's Capital: Using Federal Records to Explore the Lives of African American Ancestors
On October 6, 1862, in the nation's capital, two families appeared before a federally appointed board of commissioners that administered all business relating to the April 16 Emancipation Act that abolished slavery in the District of Columbia.1 Alice Addison, the head of a formerly enslaved African American family, was accompanied by her two adult daughters, Rachel and Mary Ann, along with Mary Ann's three children, George, Alice, and James. The other family, their former white owners, was headed by Teresa Soffell, a widow. Her three sons, Richard, John, and James, and her two daughters, Mary and Ann Young, accompanied her. A mutual desire to officially register the Addison family's new status as freed persons prompted their joint appearance. The Soffells hoped to gain the financial compensation promised by Congress to all former slaveholders in the District who had remained loyal to the Union; the Addisons simply desired the comfort and security of having an official record certifying their freedom.
The Soffells had missed the July 15, 1862, compensation deadline mandated under the terms of the April 16 act.2 The Soffells explained to the commissioners that they failed to petition by the deadline because the Addisons were no longer residing on their property at the time the act went into effect.3 The Addisons had fled the city three days earlier on April 13, fearing that President Abraham Lincoln and the federal government planned to forcibly deport them—along with all other ex-slaves—to Africa. The report noted that the Addisons had fled to their father's residence (the father of the two adult daughters) who lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, and was a slave owned by a Harry Cook. The Addisons remained there until September 28, 1862, when they returned to Washington, D.C.4
This glimpse into the lives of two Washington area families—former slaves and slaveholders—is preserved in federal records that relate to slavery and emancipation in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia before and during the Civil War era. These records contain personal information such as names, ages, physical descriptions, and places of residence, as well as collateral information casually provided in recorded testimonies. As shown in the Addison family's case, information concerning the daughter's enslaved father—including details concerning his residence in Montgomery County and the full name of his owner—is found in their testimony explaining their flight.
Slavery existed in the nation's capital from the very beginning of the city's history in 1790, when Congress created the federal territory from lands formerly held by the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. Because of its advantageous location between these two states, Washington became a center of the domestic slave trade in the 19th century and was home of one of the most active slave depots in the nation. The rapid expansion of cotton as the primary cash crop for states throughout the Deep South generated a renewed demand for slave labor. Planters and slave dealers in the declining tobacco-centered Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia, sought to capitalize on this demand by selling their surplus labor in a burgeoning domestic slave market. As one historian notes, "Washington offered dealers a convenient transportation nexus between the Upper and Lower South, as the city connected to southern markets via waterways, overland roads, and later rail."5
Within the District of Columbia, slave dealers housed the slaves in crowded pens and prisons as they waited to sell them. "Slave-coffles," long lines of shackled blacks marching from one site to another, gradually generated controversy throughout the nation. As Washington became the focus of abolitionism in the decades before the Civil War, antislavery activists argued that such scenes in the nation's capital disgraced the nation as a whole and its ideals. The Compromise of 1850 abolished active slave trading within the boundaries of the District, but the trade continued to flourish in Maryland and Virginia. As tensions increased nationally in the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery in the nation's capital continued to be a subject of special focus, activism, and compromise.6
The numbers of slaves gradually declined in the District throughout the early 19th century—from approximately 6,400 slaves in 1820 to 3,100 by 1860. Throughout the 1800s, many owners voluntarily manumitted their slaves. Of the city's black population in 1800, those who were enslaved outnumbered those who were free by four to one; however, by 1860 the number of free blacks actually exceeded the number of slaves by three to one.
In the years leading up to D.C. emancipation, the typical slave in Washington worked in some form of domestic service, and female slaves outnumbered males. On the surface, the nature of the institution seemed relatively benign compared to the harsher forms of plantation slavery in parts of the rural South, and most blacks in the District were free. Despite appearances, all African Americans in Washington—both enslaved and free—lived in a state of constant vulnerability. Those who were enslaved feared being sold further south and separated from family and loved ones. Free blacks were required to always have on their person a copy of their "certificate of freedom," and the burden of proving their status was on them. Without proof of status, free blacks could be jailed at anytime. Even if they subsequently proved their status, detained blacks still were responsible for paying for the cost of their stay. If they failed to prove their free status in sufficient time, they risked being sold further south into slavery.
Slavery remained legal in the District until April 16, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia (12 Stat. 376). The D.C. Emancipation Act originally provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to loyal Unionist masters of up to $300 for each slave, and voluntary colonization of former slaves outside the United States. The act required owners claiming compensation to file schedules listing and describing each slave by July 15, 1862. A supplementary act of July 12, 1862 (12 Stat. 538) permitted the submission of schedules by slaves whose owners lived outside of the District of Columbia if the slave had been employed with the owner's consent in the District any time after April 16, 1862. The emancipation records consist of the schedules and supporting documentation submitted as a result of these two acts.
The records are organized generally by the last name of slave owner (act of April 16, 1862) or by the last name of slave (act of July 12, 1862). Several series of records relating to slavery and emancipation in the District of Columbia have been published on microfilm and reproduced on research web sites such as Ancestry.com and Footnote.com. Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 1862–1863 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M520) relates directly to the management and dispensation of the emancipation acts of April 16 and July 12, 1862. Records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Relating to Slaves, 1851–1863 (M433), and Habeas Corpus Case Records, 1820–1863, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (M434), contain records relevant to the broader history and social presence of slavery in the District of Columbia.7
Emancipation Papers, Manumission Papers, Affidavits of Freedom, and Case Papers Relating to Fugitive Slave, 1851–1863The records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia (in Record Group 21) contain the bulk of documents relating to both free blacks and enslaved blacks who resided in Washington, D.C., and surrounding counties during the antebellum and Civil War eras. The circuit court records include:
- Manumission papers for blacks who were voluntarily freed by their owners during the decade before the 1862 act
- Emancipation papers for those freed as a result of the 1862 act
- Affidavits or certificates of freedom (the official records of proof certifying the status of free blacks)
Alfred Pope, a notable figure in Washington's African American history, was originally owned by South Carolina congressman Col. John Carter. Pope first appeared in public records as a participant in "The Pearl Affair." In April 1848, 77 slaves—including 38 men and boys, 26 women and girls, and 13 small children or infants—embarked on a schooner, the Pearl, and sailed up the Potomac with hopes of making it to the North. A militia on a steamboat overtook the Pearl at the mouth of the Chesapeake. The majority of the slaves' owners sold the captured fugitives to states in the Deep South; a few, Pope among them, escaped that fate. Later as a free man, Pope became a highly successful businessman, a landowner, a community leader in Georgetown, and a leading member of the black community in Washington.11
Pope's file contains a letter written by a white witness, John Marbury, the executor of his deceased owner's will. Pope submitted the letter to the circuit court to confirm that he was indeed free and to explain how he had lost earlier documents proving his freedom.
The bearer, Alfred Pope, a coloured man, who will hand you this note was a servant of the late Colonel Jno Carter of this town. . . . By Colonel Carters will Alfred was set free, & is now, with my consent as Executor, in the enjoyments of his freedom. . . . Alfred caused this necessary certificate of his freedom to be entered on record in your office & had in his possession a certified copy. About a week since . . . his dwelling house . . . took fire in the night & was destroyed with all his furniture. . . . Alfred wishes to leave the District in search of employment and wants to obtain a copy from the record of the evidence of his being a freed man. I would accompany him to your office to offer in person my testimony to the aforegoing facts but I am very unwell & unable to do so—will you be so kind as to render him the service he needs, by giving him the renewed evidence of his freedom in the proper form? very respectfully, Jno Marbury.12As part of the Compromise of 1850, the act of September 18, 1850 (9 Stat. 462) provided that claimants to fugitive slaves could recover their slaves, either by applying to federal judges and commissioners for warrants to arrest the fugitives or by arresting the slaves and taking them before the judges or commissioners to establish ownership. The fugitive slave case records are organized by date and contain warrants for arrest and documentation of proof of ownership.
The file of Mary Ann Williams, a fugitive and accused runaway, contains the warrant for her arrest.
Whereas Mary Massey of . . . Alexandria, State of Virginia hath applied to the Circuit Court for the rendition to her of a certain black negro woman named Mary Ann Williams . . . You are hereby commanded forth with . . . to arrest her . . . she being found in your bailiwick, and her safety keep, so that you have her body before the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, . . . immediately.Upon the capture of Mary Ann Williams, she was delivered back to her owner, Mary Massey:
the said Mary Ann Williams being brought into Court by the Marshal on a warrant issued by the Court in these premises, her identity having been proved by Rudolph Massey—it is thus . . . ordered . . . that the Marshal . . . deliver her[e] the said Mary Ann Williams to the said Mary Massey; and . . . Mary Massey is authorized . . . to transport the said Mary Ann Williams to the State of Virginia from where she escaped.For those fugitives who successfully eluded capture, there would be no record other than the initial warrant for arrest.13