“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime . . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
— Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified Dec. 6, 1865)
The D.C. Emancipation Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, freed Philip Reid and 3,100 enslaved African Americans. Nearly nine months later, the President issued the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. These two actions signaled the federal government’s adoption of emancipation as a national policy. Finally, in 1865 the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution ended slavery throughout the United States. African Americans in the District of Columbia celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16 with parades and festivals for many years, establishing a tradition that was revived in 2004.
Between 1870 and 1901, twenty-two African Americans served in the Capitol as members of Congress. Two men, Hiram Rhodes Revels (1870-71) and Blanche Kelso Bruce (1875-81) represented Mississippi in the United States Senate. Joseph Hayne Rainey (1870-79) from South Carolina was the first African American to serve in the United States House of Representatives.
These twenty-two men shared several characteristics. Almost all were born and raised in slavery in the Southern states. They were committed to ending slavery and they shared a strong commitment to education and self-improvement. All were Republicans and worked in Congress to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the South.
George Henry White of North Carolina was the last of this group of congressmen, leaving office in 1901. It would be 28 years before another African American would take a seat in Congress.