Thursday, April 5, 2012

Passover 1862: Exodus & Emancipation in Washington

 In April 1862, Washington's small wartime Jewish community observed Passover, the annual commemoration of the Israelites' liberation from Egyptian bondage.  The eight-day festival began with the first night's seder on April 14th in which Jews continued the age-old tradition of recalling the story of Exodus.  However, this Passover 1862 was different from all other Passovers in that a contemporary version of the story of Exodus was unfolding in Washington.  

By April 1862, thousands of slaves, euphemistically referred to as "Contrabands,"  had already fled Virginia and Maryland for the relative safety of camps in and around Washington.  Although these contemporary refugees did not flee with matzoh or cross the Red Sea, they did hope that a contemporary "Father Abraham" or Moses-like figure would help free them.  Abolitionists had been pressing President Abraham Lincoln  to remove the stain of slavery from the nation's capital.  On April 16th-- the second day of Passover-- President Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in Washington.  It went into effect a full eight and half months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved African Americans in rebellious states.
A Civil War era photograph of Washington's City Hall where that former slaveowners in Washington applied to a special commission for compensation for their emancipated slaves.  Nearly $1 million in compensation was paid out by the Federal Government.  (Library of Congress).

The legislation  provided for compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each slave.  Over the next nine months, an appointed Board of Commissioners approved 930 petitions from former owners for compensation for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.  Several Washington Jews owned slaves in the District. 

 Dr. Charles Liebermann, a Russian-born physician living in the District had owned slaves since at least 1849.  In June 1862, Liebermann submitted a petition requesting $225 in compensation for his claim to Daniel Jones.    Dr. Liebermann included a copy of the July 1849 legal paperwork associated with his purchase of the then 13-year old Daniel Jones for $200.

Charles H. Liebermann's Petition (NARA)

 On April 17th, the Washington National Republican,  published an item on the "The Hebrew Passover," detailing how and why Jews observe Passover.  Directly below this article, the avowedly anti-slavery paper ran an editorial applauding President Lincoln's signing of the District Emancipation Bill, noting that "if freedom is a blessing, it ought to be bestowed on the greatest number possible by this bill."

100 miles to the south, the Richmond Dispatch, diligently  avoiding any references to the south's "peculiar institution,"  vividly described Passover observances in the Confederate capital:
"The celebration of the Jewish Passover which begun last week and which has been scrupulously observed by our Hebrew fellow-citizens, closes on tomorrow. As usual there are services daily in the two synagogues. It is a custom with the ancient people of God during the continuance of the Passover to eat unleavened bread, lamb, celery, and parsley, and almond mush. According to prescribed rule, each dish is typical of incidents connected with the tribulations endured by the children of Israel in their attempts to escape from the bondage in which they were held by their Egyptian persecutors."

Just as the story of Exodus is recalled during Passover, for 150 years Washington's African American community has celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16th to recall their ancestor's freedom after several hundred years in bondage.  
Harper's Weekly depiction of the large celebration of the anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia that occurred in April 1866.  Generations of Washington African-Americans would continue to celebrate Emanciaption Day, which made Washington's slaves the "first freed."  (Library of Congress)

Apelbaum, Laura Cohen and Clair Uziel, eds, Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City.   Washington, D.C.:  Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, 2009.
The Richmond Dispatch, April 21, 1862.
Washington National Republican, April 17, 1862.
Washington, D.C., Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-1863 Record for Charles H Leiberman.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Washington Canal: Cesspool in the Midst of the Nation's Capital

 In the 1860s, a cesspool of filth literally lay at the foot of Congress.  The Washington City Canal, once envisioned as a key artery linking the capital with the West via the Potomac and C&O Canal, was little more than an open sewer.  This fetid body of water, which had never lived up to its economic promise,  was both a visual blight on the city and a serious public health nuisance.  One War Department report called the canal "that pestiferous ditch of water." 

An early plan for Washington depicting the Washington City Canal that linked the Potomac River, Tiber Creek and the C&O Canal to the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River).  Part of the canal ran along what is today Constitution Avenue just north of the National Mall with branches then proceeding south of the Capitol leading into the Anacostia River.  In 1831, the City of Washington purchased the canal from its private owners.  By the start of the Civil War, the canal was offensive to the senses of both sight and smell.