In 1862, more than 900 enslavers living in the nation’s capital received money compensating them for the immediate emancipation of the more than 3,000 people they enslaved. The payments — averaging about $300 per enslaved person, equal to $8,587 in today’s money — came from the federal budget.
In 1835, White residents rioted over an alleged plan by an enslaved man and an abolitionist to incite a rebellion. And in 1848, 77 enslaved Black Washingtonians attempted to escape aboard a ship called the Pearl, the single largest nonviolent escape attempt in American history. Unfortunately, weather slowed their escape and they were recaptured.
A list of recipients of these payments reads like a who’s who of Washington society. Multiple members of the prominent Carr, Naylor, Throckmorton, Fenwick and Scott families received payments. The founders of the Willard Hotel, Henry Augustus Willard and Joseph Clapp Willard, received $2,430.90 for six enslaved people. William Thomas Carroll, a descendant of a wealthy Maryland slaveholding family and clerk of the Supreme Court, received $1,182.60 for three people. Francis Preston Blair Sr., an adviser to Lincoln, got a payment; so did the Sisters of Visitation of Georgetown. One person, George W. Young, received nearly $18,000 — about half a million in today’s dollars — for 69 people he enslaved.
There are a few payments to people noted as “colored.” This reflects one of the strange pathways to freedom many African Americans had carved. People who were born free or became free would often save up and purchase other family members. Some Black Washingtonians, who technically held the deeds to family members, may have seen an opportunity by also applying for compensation. Their payments were generally smaller than those given to White enslavers; for example, a Black man named Gabriel Coakley received $1,489.20 for eight people with the same surname, probably his wife and children.
In the end, about $1 million was given to Washington enslavers, the vast majority of whom were already wealthy. Since there was no income tax at the time and the federal budget was largely composed of customs duties, it isn’t really accurate to say this came from taxpayer dollars, but it certainly came from public money collected to benefit the nation.
These days, that $1 million given to 966 people would be worth $28.6 million — to say nothing of the wealth produced by investments of that money over generations. April 16, the day the Compensated Emancipation Act went into effect, is now celebrated as Emancipation Day in the District.
This content was originally published here.