Old City Hall, built between 1820 and 1850, was Washington City's first public building. It housed a court of law where trials of abolitionists and Underground Railroad participants occurred in the early 1820s. The American Convention for the Abolition of Slavery also met here in 1829. The building also housed the early Office of the Recorder of Deeds. Frederick Douglass worked here as U.S. marshal (1877-1881) and as recorder of deeds for the city (1881-1885).
Old City Hall was also the site for the only known instance of compensation of white slaveholders for the loss (by government emancipation) of African Americans they legally owned as property. Though most claimants were white, there is evidence that African Americans also sought compensation for family members whose titles they had purchased in order to keep them from being sold to whites. White slaveholders were granted compensation after enslaved African Americans were “first freed” by the DC Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862. With this act, African Americans here were legally freed, received a certificate of emancipation, and were eligible for payments of up to $100 if they emigrated to Haiti, Liberia, or other colonies outside of the United States. White Slaveholders who were loyal to the Union could receive compensation for up to $300 per enslaved person.
The all-white, three-member Emancipation Commission conducted compensation interviews here. African Americans participated in the process by testifying for and against white slaveholders seeking compensation. By the end of the compensation process, close to $1 million had been dispensed to white slaveholders.
Buildings, Old City Hall, Judiciary Square, Vertical Files, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003).
Allan Johnston, Surviving Freedom: The Black Community of Washington, D.C., 1860-1880 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993).
National Archives, DC Emancipation Act, archives.gov/exhibit_hall/featured_documents/dc_emancipation_act/transcription.html
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