Binary Man: Wipe Out D.C. Emancipation Day?
Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.
Tough times call for tough action, and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has now proposed to eliminate a public holiday--Emancipation Day.
What's that, you say? Well, it's coming right up--April 16--but because the official holiday is just four years old, it still comes as a surprise both to commuters and to city residents, who wake up one fine spring morning each year to learn that the reversible lanes on Connecticut Avenue aren't reversing, and the trash isn't being picked up, and on and on.
Binary Man loves holidays, especially ones that have a real and meaningful connection with great stories in history, and this one certainly qualifies in that regard:
Emancipation Day commemorates the fact that Abe Lincoln freed the District's 3,000 slaves in 1862, almost nine months before he issued his historic Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery nationwide.
Interestingly, Lincoln did not extend the D.C. model to the rest of the nation, perhaps because it would have been too cumbersome (and expensive) a process. The District's slaves were freed immediately, and were then given the option of being given $100 each and free passage to locations outside the United States where they could create colonies. The plan also compensated former slave owners who were loyal to the Union with up to $300 for each freed slave. The compensation and colonization models were dropped when emancipation went nationwide.
But as fascinating and important a piece of history as D.C. emancipation was, the story of how the day became a city holiday is a contemporary and not terribly thrilling one. The anniversary of the freeing of the slaves was celebrated with parades through the latter part of the 19th century, but after that, nothing special would happen each April 16--until the D.C. Council, prodded by former Ward 5 member Vincent Orange, passed a bill to pay for an annual parade and create a day off for city workers.
The drive to create the holiday was led by Loretta Carter Hanes, a founder of the city's Reading Is Fundamental group. Hanes, though limited to a wheelchair, collected hundreds of signatures on a petition and pushed for more than a decade, finally winning the city's first public holiday of its own.
So: Keep the holiday, or get rid of it?
The Fenty administration argues that scrapping the holiday would save about $2 million--the amount the city has had to spend each Emancipation Day to keep police and fire workers on the job even though the rest of the workforce has the day off. In the scheme of a $5 billion budget, that's a pittance, so Binary Man is not remotely convinced by a purely financial argument.
But the fact that even after four years, hardly anyone knows the holiday exists, and the fact that the city's public employees already suffer from a reputation as a less than fully energetic and engaged workforce add up to a much more persuasive reason to get rid of a holiday that simply has not raised awareness about that splendid and intriguing moment in history.
A holiday, Binary Man believes, ought to celebrate or commemorate something that is already meaningful to the people; holidays ought not be imposed from on high. Sure, everyone loves another day off, especially in the early days of spring, but the holidays that really stick, that really give us both a chance to relax and an opportunity to reflect, are the ones that remind us of people or events that organically became part of the culture's storyline--Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, the Fourth of July.
A local holiday would have a tough time making that grade; this one hasn't and there's no reason to believe it would. Let it go.
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