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Washington, D.C., History Resources

A guide to the local history resources available on the District of Columbia.

Introduction -- Slavery and Emancipation

Emancipation Day in 1866

Emancipation Day Celebration at Franklin Square on April 16, 1866, engraving by F. Dielman for Harper's Weekly. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

District residents celebrate April 16 as Emancipation Day to celebrate the passage of the District Compensated Emancipation Act on 1862, yet  emancipation did not occur on a single day. The process began during the Revolutionary War, as Black people began to press for freedom and the liberties won by patriots. Allied with white and Black abolitionists, Black people petitioned the courts, ran away from their owners, and negotiated the terms for their freedom from their owners. The District became home for many from Maryland and Virginia who succeeded in these efforts.

At the same time, the District was also notorious for its active slave trade. Enslavers from the District, Maryland and Virginia traded with dealers who held people captive in the jails, pens, and hotels before they were placed on ships or in coffles to destinations in the Upland South and Lower South. The horrors of this trade added urgency to the abolitionists helping individual Blacks and who petitioned Congress for abolition in the only place it had direct jurisdiction.

Wartime emancipation was as dramatic in the District of Columbia as anywhere in the United States. Its large Black community, the presence of abolitionists, and the work opportunities provided by the construction of the defenses of Washington attracted freedom seekers from Southern states. Despite the attempts of slave catchers and District police to stem the influx of people escaping slavery, the Black population tripled in size. The nation's capital became both the center of Black political, intellectual, and cultural life and the home of a segregated and largely poor Black population, a dual identity that persists to this day.

Researchers should also consult other areas of this guide, particularly the sections devoted to the Booth Family Center for Special Collections; Manuscript Collections; Newspapers; Diaries, Memoirs, and Oral Histories.

Deeds related to Slavery and Freedom

Records documenting the free or enslaved status of Black people are filed with the land deeds of the District of Columbia. These papers served the function of documenting the sale of an enslaved person, the compliance of an enslaver with District laws, and the granting of freedom to a person by their enslaver.

These slavery and freedom documents include:

  • Bills of sale: Documents created when a person was sold to provide proof of title. These documents reveal the circumstances of most sales: the execution of estates upon the death of an enslaver, payment of a debt, and bankruptcy.
  • Certificates of Slavery: Documents establishing the lawful ownership of a person by an enslaver. These certificates demonstrated compliance with laws regulating the transfer or sale of enslaved people into the District.
  • Certificates of freedom: Documents that provided free Blacks proof of their status.
  • Emancipations: Documents conferring the immediate freedom for a person, usually with a statement by the enslaver.
  • Manumissions: Documents that detail the conditions for freedom, often defining when a person will be freed at a future date. Freedom certificates would be provided after the person served the term.

Repositories

These records are split between federal and municipal repositories. There are two sets of deeds (original and transcripts) with an index located in separate repositories: 

  • National Archives and Records Administration: Deed Books, 1792-1869, part of Record Group 351, Entry 4, Records relating to Construction, Engineering, Land, and Transportation
  • Record of Deeds: Individual deeds may be requested by researchers using a D.C. Archives Liber Request form
  • D.C. Archives: Indices to Deeds

Indexed abstracts of records

  • Helen Hoban Rogers, compiler. Freedom & Slavery Documents in the District of Columbia, 1792-1822, 3 vols. (Baltimore, Md: Gateway Press, 2007-2009)

Slavery Records created by the U.S. Circuit Courts

The U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia had oversight over manumission and emancipation. Its records include certifications of manumission and freedom of Black individuals and habeas corpus papers related to fugitive slaves.  The U.S. Circuit Court had jurisdiction over Alexandria until 1846, when its residents successfully petitioned for the retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia. The District of Columbia records are maintained principally by the National Archives and Records Administration; the Library of Virginia is the principal custodian of the Alexandria (or Arlington) County records.

Habeas Corpus Records, 1820-1863

The U.S. Constitution protects citizens from the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Courts can issue such a writ, demanding that a public official (such as a prison warden) show a valid reason for the imprisonment of a captive. Before emancipation, most of these cases involved persons alleged to be fugitive slaves. Often enslavers claimed these prisoners as their property. Some Black prisoners challenged the legal basis of their imprisonment.

Repository:

  • National Archives and Records Administration: access provided on microfilm, M434 Habeas Corpus Court Records for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, 1820-1863, Record Group 21, Entry 28

Digital Access:

  • National Archives Catalog, digitized images arranged in chronological order
  • Also available on Ancestry.com which is accessible to library card holders and visitors of the D.C. Public Library

Washington and Georgetown Manumission and Emancipation Records, 1821-1846, 1855-1862

These records consist of two types of records that certify the freedom of Black people. The first are transcripts of manumission records created by owners, their agents, or the courts that declare an enslaved person free. The second are transcripts of the certificates given to free Black residents required to secure freedom papers. There are approximately 3,600 individual Blacks listed in these records.

Manumission could be provided by an outright deed or a will executed upon the death of an owner. In some cases, Black people successfully petitioned for freedom on the grounds that their enslavement violated a previous contract or law so that officers of the courts declared them free. These records include the names (usually with surnames) and identifying characteristics such as color or age for the individual Blacks listed. Often, more than one individual was freed by a single action. There is information about the occupation, perceived character, and provisions made for the newly-freed individual. It was common for enslaved people to raise the money to purchase themselves from their owners and those terms were noted in the deeds.

After 1827, all free Black individuals were required to register with the city and secure a certificate of their freedom that local authorities could inspect at any time. These certificates were issued to Blacks who produced the legal documents that conferred freedom. Many free Blacks, particularly freeborn Blacks, did not have such documents. They were required to secure the testimony of at least two white individuals to secure their certificates. Commonly known as "freedom papers," these certificates could be stolen, destroyed, or ignored to encourage re-enslavement or kidnapping.

There are five extant volumes: 1821-1828, 1828-1837, 1837-1846, 1855-1863. The latter volume includes manumission records and certificates issued as a result of the District Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.

Repositories: 

  • National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 21, Entry 30
  • District of Columbia Archives (copies)

Digital Access:

  • These records are not digitized.

Indexed abstracts of records:

  • Dorothy S. Provine, compiler. District of Columbia Free Negro Registers, 1821-1861, 2 vols. (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1996).

Arlington County Free Black Registers, 1797-1861

These records for the city of Alexandria, D.C. and Va., are similar to the records described above for Washington, consisting of two types of records that certify the freedom of Black people. The first are transcripts of manumission records created by owners, their agents, or the courts that declare an enslaved person free. The second are transcripts of the certificates given to free Black residents required to secure freedom papers. There are approximately 2,530 entries included in these records. This number is misleading, since several entries record the freedom of more than one individual and there also is more than one record for several individuals.

In 1793, Virginia law required the town clerk to register free Blacks in these volumes, recording the individual's name, age, color, and source of freedom and in turn providing each individual a certificate of freedom. The law also stipulated that free Blacks renew their certificates, although it does not appear that this provision was enforced.

Repositories:

  • Library of Virginia, Arlington County Microfilm Reel 62 (available through InterLibrary Loan)
  • Alexandria Public Library, Local History / Special Collections, Kate Waller Barret Branch Library, Microfiche

Indexed abstracts of records:

  • Dorothy S. Provine, compiler. Alexandria County Virginia Free Negro Registers,1797-1861 (Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 2012)

Arlington County, VA, Deeds of Emancipation, 1796-1853

Loose papers documenting the manumission of individual Blacks provided by the deed or the will of an enslaver or a court order. 

Repository:

  • Library of Virginia

Digital access: 

Arlington County, VA, Free Black and Slave Records, 1788-1866

Loose papers related to enslaved and free blacks in Arlington County (including Alexandria before 1846) that includes bills of sales involving enslaved people, petitions for free Blacks to remain in the state, a register of free Blacks delinquent on their taxes, certificates authorizing the importation of enslaved people, manumission papers, and a register of free Blacks.

Repository:

Digital access: 

Slave Manifests filed in New Orleans

When vessels arrived in New Orleans, customs officers required the captains of the vessels to provide a list of all of the enslaved individuals on board whom were intended for sale. Several of these vessels originated in Alexandria, Washington, and Georgetown. The manifests provided the names and ages of the enslaved individuals.

Repository:

  • The National Archives and Records Administration: access provided in microfilm publication M1895, Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860, Record Group 36, Records of the U.S. Customs Service

Digital Access:

  • National Archives Catalog: digitized images arranged in chronological order
  • Also available on Ancestry.com which is accessible to visitors of the D.C. Public Library

Records of the Commissioners of the Board of Emancipation, 1862-1863

The District Compensated Emancipation Act of April 16, 1862, provided for the freedom of all enslaved people who worked in Washington, D.C., and compensated those enslavers who remained loyal to the Union. Three slave traders comprised the Board of Commissioners who approved 930 petitions for the property value of 2,989 enslaved people. The commissioners required the name and personal description of each person listed in the claim, statements regarding how the owners acquired their property (for example, purchase, transfer from a relative, natural increase), and the requested compensation which they often justified by pointing to the quality of their work or character. 

These records constitute one of the most comprehensive records of enslaved people by name in any jurisdiction. 

Repository: 

  • The National Archives and Records Administration: access provided in microfilm publication M520, Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 1862-1863, Record Group 217, Records of the Accounting Officers of the U.S. Treasury

Digital Access: 

  • National Archives Catalog: database and images searchable by name of petitioner and petition number
  • Civil War Washington, digital humanities project sponsored by University of Nebraska Lincoln: transcripts and images of petitions and supporting documentation searchable by name of petitioner and enslaved person
  • Also available on Ancestry.com which is accessible to library card holders and visitors of the D.C. Public Library

Related publications:

For a list of the petitioners claiming compensation, the names of those enslaved by them, and the amount of compensation received, see U.S. House, Emancipation in the District of Columbia, 38th Cong., 1st sess., H. Ex. Doc. 42, Serial 1189. (Proquest Congressional)

Digital Projects -- Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia

Civil War Washington

The District of Columbia's role as nation's capital and the distinctive development of Black life in the city set a unique course for emancipation and the unfolding drama of the Civil War. This site brings together a collection of datasets, images, texts, and maps to help researchers visualize the complex changes of the city of Washington between 1860 and 1865. Most notably, Civil War Washington includes digitized and transcribed versions of the following documents that are searchable by name. keyword, place, and events:

  • Petitions filed by slave owners to the Board of Emancipation under the terms of the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862
  • Letters from Washington from correspondents of the Anglo-African (New York), 1863
  • Medical and Surgical cases extracted from The Medical and Surgical History of the War and Rebellion (1861-1865)
  • Newspapers:
    • Armory Square Hospital Gazette, January 6-August 21, 1865
    • The Cripple, October 8, 1864-April 29, 1865
    • The Soldier's Journal, February 17, 1864-August 2, 1865

Civil War Washington is directed by Susan C. Lawrence, Elizabeth Lorang, Kenneth M. Price, and Kenneth J. Winkle and is published by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln.

  • For a historical monograph based on this project, see Kenneth J. Winkle, Lincoln’s Citadel : the Civil War in Washington, DC (catalog record).  

The Enslaved Children of George Mason

The Enslaved Children of George Mason (ECGM) project is examining public, family, and and personal papers to learn more about the enslaved people owned by George Mason IV for whom George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, is named. Gunston Hall, the mansion built by George Mason and site of a tobacco plantation where he enslaved more than 100 people, is a few miles from GMU. ECGM began as a project as a student project at George Mason University led by faculty Dr. Benedict Carton, professor of History, and Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott, professor of Integrative Studies and History, who sought to redress the silence regarding Mason's slaveholding. The project has worked closely with the Gunston Hall Library and Archives.

Escaping Slavery, Building Diverse Communities

Escaping Slavery explores the communities built by the thousands of Black people who fled their owners to seek their freedom in Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas during the Civil War. This site brings together 15 illustrated narrative histories of refugee camps and present-day neighborhoods, a timeline, and maps. Georgetown University students taking History 396, a course taught by Dr. Chandra Manning, professor of History, composed this site during the fall 2019 term.

Legacy of Slavery in Maryland

First established by the Maryland State Archives in 2001, this project originated as an attempt to uncover the stories of freedom seekers. In addition to composing biographies, the project staff created a database that includes records of more than 40,000 individual enslaved, free, and freed Blacks from a census, court records, newspapers and other sources. In addition to this searchable database, the project staff has digitized key documents, composed case studies, created interactive maps, and created research guides for genealogists and others interested in slavery and emancipation in Maryland.

O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family 

O Say Can You See explores hundreds of legal suits brought by enslaved people to secure their freedom in the courts of Maryland and the District of Columbia between 1790 and 1862. These cases reveal extensive kinship networks of the enslaved and Free Black litigants, their relationships to enslavers and lawyers, and the often dire conditions that prompted their legal actions. Several of the petitioners brought suit against Catholic families connected to Georgetown College and the Maryland Province. The site includes digitized and indexed reproductions of all petitions for freedom and supporting case papers, an 1822 map of free Black residences in Washington, D.C., and several interpretive essays on the petitions for freedom.

Dr. William Thomas, Professor of History and John and Catherine Angle Chair of the Humanities at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, is the lead investigator of O Say Can You See; its institutional partners are The Center for Digital Humanities at the University of Nebraska and the Maryland Institute for Digital Research and the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland were the institutional partners.

  • See William G. Thomas, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War (catalog record) on the suits brought by members of the Queen family who were enslaved by the Jesuits. The family succeeded in securing the freedom of some family members, but several of the Queens were sold by the Jesuits in 1838. 

Slave Streets, Free Streets

This site recreates the landscape of Baltimore between 1815 and 1820, where approximately 4,300 enslaved and 10,300 free Blacks lived and worked. It uses city directories, census, and maps to create a three-dimensional visualization of their everyday lives in addition to the sites connected to the slave trade and freedom seekers. Dr. Anne Sarah Rubin, professor of History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is working with the Imaging Research Center at UMBC.

Slavery in the President's Neighborhood

The White House Historical Association (WHHA) has created a site that provides information on the enslaved people who lived and worked at the White House, including its construction. The site also provides a virtual tour of the slave quarters of Decatur House, which the WHHA now owns, and a timeline that depicts the exploitation of enslaved individuals in the White House.

Digital Projects -- Slavery at Georgetown College

Georgetown Slavery Archive

This digital repository of materials documents the relationship of the Maryland Jesuits and Georgetown University to slavery. The project was initiated in February 2016 by the Archives Subgroup of the Georgetown University Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. Its editors and research assistants have surveyed primary sources held at Booth Family Center for Special Collections and other repositories to select pertinent documents for inclusion in this collection. The documents are transcribed and, if necessary, translated into English. Often, they are posted with supplementary information that can help contextualize a document.

The Georgetown Slavery Archive has also accepted materials from descendants of those enslaved by the Jesuits and the class projects of students, including podcasts and documentary videos that explore the legacy of slavery at Georgetown. It also provides recommendations for readings and lesson plans for secondary school teachers. 

Dr. Adam Rothman, Professor of History, serves as its Curator. Elsa Barazza Mendoza, Ph.D., has served as its Assistant Curator.

Life and Labor under Slavery: the Jesuit Plantation Project 

A project derived from the Jesuit Plantation Project developed by Georgetown's American Studies department, Dr. Sharon M. Leon, Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University, surveyed the Archives of the Maryland Province, the Georgetown University Archives, and other records to create a database on those enslaved by the Jesuits. For each case of an enslaved or free Black person in the records, Leon recorded the place, relationships, date, event, and other information to create a linked data set and visualizations to learn more about the slave families and communities on the Jesuit plantations. 

On These Grounds: Slavery and the University

This project is building a shared method of collecting, organizing and describing historical data from universities whose students and faculty are exploring their historical roles in the injustices of slavery. A team of archivists and historians from Georgetown University, Michigan State University and the University of Virginia will identify records of events involving the enslaved that include transactions such as sales and hiring out; life course events such as births and deaths; and violence and abuse. The team will also create a descriptive vocabulary that can describe the archival holdings related to enslavement held at Georgetown and University of Virginia. These methods will serve as a model for other universities interested in describing their records.

The Omeka team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is also collaborating on this project. Dr. Sharon M. Leon, Associate Professor of Digital History at MSU, serves as the Principal Investigator. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided a $550,000 grant to support this project.

The Price of Georgetown: A Walking Tour of Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation

This site provides maps of the Georgetown campus with vivid illustrations of the various sites connected to Georgetown's history of enslavement. This walking tour provides information on the people memorialized on campus, student activities associated with slavery, and places now associated with reconciliation.

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