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Washington's multiracial abolitionist movement helped bring an early end to slavery in the nation's capital. On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the DC Emancipation Act making enslaved Washingtonians the "first freed" — nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in the rebellious states. Four years later Washingtonians began commemorating this momentous event with the first Emancipation Day Parade. More than 5,000 marchers stepped off from Franklin Square and wound through downtown, stopping at the White House, then returning here for speeches. There were more than 10,000 spectators.

An observer called the Washington parade "the grandest event in the history of the colored race." A range of organizations participated, including workingmen's clubs; civic, charitable, and mutual aid organizations; political organizations; and social and sporting clubs. Dozens of militias, guards, regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops, and other military men marched. The elite played multiple roles, including financing the parade, serving as marshals, and giving speeches. Frederick Douglass was a frequent speaker. Children were given the day off from school to participate.

The parade ended in 1901 because of strife among elite organizers and also because they disapproved of the behavior of the members of the poor and working-class who were participating in larger numbers. Emancipation Day celebrations continued in churches. The parade was revived in 2002.

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