National Archives Shares Rarely-seen Slave Petitions from DC Emancipation Act
Press Release · Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Emancipation documents offer rare glimpse into slaves’ lives for Act’s 150th anniversary

Washington, DC…In commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the DC Emancipation Act, the National Archives today shared rarely seen original records pertaining to the Act, including petitions from slaves in Washington, DC. National Archives archivists Damani Davis and Robert Ellis, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln scholar Kenneth Winkle discuss the significance of these documents in the National Archives “Inside the Vaults” video short at

In the video, archivist Damani Davis discusses the petitions filed by owners and enslaved persons under the Act and the details they reveal about the enslaved African-American community at the time. Archivist Robert Ellis explains how the process worked. And Kenneth Winkle of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), explains how the UNL scholars have scanned, transcribed, and made these petitions available online at the UNL Civil War Washington website (

The film series is free to view and distribute on YouTube channel at These videos are in the public domain and not subject to any copyright restrictions. The National Archives encourages the free distribution of them.

“These petitions show a fuller portrait of the people who were slaves in the District. These documents reveal information about who the slaves were, how they lived and how slavery and emancipation changed their lives,” said Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero. “We are grateful to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for making these documents more accessible to the public.”

“Slaves at this time were generally anonymous,” said Kenneth Winkle, UNL’s Sorensen Professor of American History and co-director of the project. “Now, with these petitions, they have documented lives that we can interpret, study and share with scholars, students and the public. We can tell their story, which has been largely overlooked. And it is a remarkable story.”

Background on the DC Emancipation Act

More than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation broke the bondage of slavery across the South, a much more singularly focused experiment in equality was playing out in the country’s capital. The Compensated Emancipation Act, signed in April 1862, ordered all slaves in the District of Columbia to be freed. It was the first time the U.S. government had officially liberated any group of slaves – and unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, it permitted their former masters to petition the government for compensation in exchange for their slaves’ freedom.

Though controversial, the act produced exceptionally rare documentation of the era: Namely, reimbursement petitions that showed the names, ages, histories and descriptions of an entire community of 3,200 African-Americans. 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. These records also contain difficult truths – because the forms were used to establish a slave’s value for compensation, they share physical details that often underscore the brutality of slavery.

The original act, signed by President Lincoln, is on loan to the Capitol Visitor Center through September 9, 2012.

About the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration, an independent federal agency, is the nation's record keeper. Founded in 1934, its mission is unique -- to serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. The National Archives ensures continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. It supports democracy, promotes civic education, and facilitates historical understanding of our national experience. The National Archives meets a wide range of information needs, among them helping people to trace their families' history, making it possible for veterans to prove their entitlement to medical and other benefits, and preserving original White House records. The National Archives carries out its mission through a nationwide network of archives, records centers, and Presidential Libraries, and on the Internet at

About Civil War Washington

Civil War Washington is UNL's interdisciplinary digital project examining the nation's capital during the pivotal Civil War period. Created bySusan Lawrence, Kenneth Price, and Kenneth Winkle of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL, this project allows users to study, visualize, and theorize the complex changes in the city of Washington, DC, between 1860 and 1865 through a collection of datasets, images, texts, and maps. The site illustrates how Washington and its people responded in dramatic and distinctive ways to the four years of war.

The Compensated Emancipation Act project, part of Civil War Washington, was made possible through a three-year, $220,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to examine how race, slavery and emancipation affected the capital during the war. For more information, contact Steve Smith, UNL University Communications, at 402-472-4226, or

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For Press information, contact the National Archives Public Affairs Staff at 202-357-5300.

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