Documents reveal rare look into slaves’ lives

jbrehm2, April 10, 2012 | View original publication

Documents reveal rare look into slaves’ lives

More than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation broke the bondage of slavery across the South, a much more singularly focused experiment in equality was playing out in the country's capital. The Compensated Emancipation Act, signed in April 1862, ordered all slaves in the District of Columbia to be freed.

            It was the first time the U.S. government had officially liberated any group of slaves — and unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, it permitted their former masters to petition the government for compensation in exchange for their slaves' freedom.

            Though controversial, the act produced exceptionally rare documentation of the era: reimbursement petitions that showed the names, ages, histories and descriptions of an entire community of 3,000 African Americans.

            As the 150th anniversary of the Compensated Emancipation Act approaches, University of Nebraska-Lincoln scholars have transcribed hundreds of the petitions and have published digital versions at Civil War Washington (, an interdisciplinary digital research project that studies life in the nation's capital during the pivotal period. The documents are viewable at

            "Slaves at this time were generally anonymous," said Kenneth Winkle, UNL's Sorensen Professor of American History and co-director of the project. "In the 1860 Census, for example, Southerners objected to providing their slaves' names as if it would make them more real, more human.

            "Now, with these petitions, they have documented lives that we can interpret, study and share with scholars, students and the public. We can tell their story, which has been largely overlooked. And it is a remarkable story."

            Winkle will take part in an April 11 commemoration of the act's anniversary at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The UNL historian will speak about the importance of the petitions in elevating understanding of emancipation in real, human terms.

            Winkle and UNL's Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature; Susan Lawrence, associate professor of history; Elizabeth Lorang, research assistant professor of English, and others have been poring through the documents and today have about 200 of the roughly 1,000 petitions incorporated into Civil War Washington. The act's official 150th anniversary is April 16.

            The petitions, Winkle said, paint a fuller portrait of who the District's slaves were, how they lived and how slavery and emancipation changed their lives. They also contain difficult truths — because the forms were used to establish a slave's value for compensation, they share physical details that often underscore the brutality of slavery.

            "They can be, at points, horrible to read," Winkle said. "And their physical descriptions are just one example of what they went through. These documents show in real, human terms what slavery did to people, and then, what freedom would mean when they were released from that inhuman servitude."

            Price, who co-directs UNL's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, said the addition of the petitions to Civil War Washington enriches the project by unearthing new understandings of the era's effect on the city and Washington's transformation into the symbolic center of the Union and the nation.

            "Washington, D.C., was a laboratory of democracy, where Congress had chosen to take a more aggressive hand," Price said. "Those who supported the radical Republican agenda of the day had the ability to push through, without the hurdle of a state legislature, experiments they wanted to see play out locally before it spread nationally. This was one of their most profound experiments."

            The petitions highlight a number of new features at Civil War Washington, which also include a refreshed design, a new mapping application, a new project database, improved and expanded content from the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and new newspaper content. More than 15 UNL faculty, staff and students currently contribute to the project.

            The Compensated Emancipation Act project was made possible through a three-year, $220,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to examine how race, slavery and emancipation affected the capital during the war.

            "I believe there will be an outpouring of interest and scholarship once these petitions are more accessible to the public," Winkle said.

A video produced by the National Archives about UNL's role in preserving documents related to the Compensated Emancipation Act can be viewed at