On Thursday, May 22, 1862, Margaret C. Barber of Washington, D.C. stood before the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia. She presented a claim to the Commission to be compensated by the Federal Government, which had freed her 34 slaves. She was not alone in making such a request, as more than 1,000 District residents filed similar documents, but hers was the second largest. Documents from her claim provide a vantage point onto both the institution of slavery and the beginning of its demise during the Civil War.
As of April 16, 1862, all slaves within the District of Columbia were freed by the "Act for the Release of Certain Persons Held to Service or Labor in the District of Columbia," passed by the U.S. Congress. According to this Act,All persons held to service or labor within the District of Columbia by reason of African descent are hereby discharged and freed of and from all claim to such service or labor; and from and after the passage of this act neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for crime, whereof the party shall be duly convicted, shall hereafter exist in said District. (1)
The Act passed after considerable congressional and Presidential debate and compromise. Some urged a cautious approach for fear of alienating slaveholding border states such as Kentucky. Abolitionists wanted immediate emancipation without compensation to slave owners, with some suggesting compensation be given to slaves instead. Non-abolitionists tended to favor compensation to former owners. (2)
The final legislation provided for owner compensation. The Act created a presidentially appointed Board of Commissioners to determine the amount of compensation. The amount was not to exceed $300 per emancipated slave and was limited to owners who could prove that they had remained loyal to the United States. Compensation would not be provided "for any slave claimed by any person who has borne arms against the Government of the United States in the present rebellion, or in any way given aid or comfort thereto...." Commissioners hired Bernard M. Campbell, a Baltimore slave trader, to assist them in assessing the value of the slaves.
In 1860, Margaret C. Barber had owned 29 slaves ranging in age from 2 to 75. (3) By 1862, she had "acquired her claim" to five additional slaves through inheritance both from her father and from her late husband. While the 1860 census listed only the age and sex of Barber's slaves, her compensation claim provided names, descriptions, and monetary value. (4) Following are some examples from this document. Peter Jenkins, listed as a "slave for life," was 65-years old, 5-foot 8 1/2 inches tall, and a "number one farm hand." Barber was able to hire him out for $70 a year. She listed his worth at $250. Ellen Jenkins, 60-years old and 5-foot 7 inches, was also a slave for life, a "good cook" who could earn $82 a year in wages for Barber. Jenkins's worth was listed at $250. Richard Williams...