On the evening of April 15, 1848, at least 75 slaves from the D.C. area, both adults and children, tried to escape slavery with the help of two white men, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, who chartered a 64-foot schooner, The Pearl, for their departure.
In the dark, the would-be escapees made their way in small groups to a wharf in Southeast D.C. and they set sail down the Potomac River. Unfortunately, bad weather delayed the voyage, giving whites enough time to form a posse. The posse traveled by steamboat and overtook The Pearl at Point Lookout, 100 miles southeast of D.C. the next morning, on this day in history. They took everyone back to Washington.
As the news of the escape attempt spread, pro-slavery rioters attacked abolitionist businesses. Drayton and Sayres were put in the city jail, from which a lynch mob attempted to remove them. Most of the escapees were sold South to slave dealers in New Orleans and Georgia.
Historians believe this was the nation’s largest single escape attempt.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” known as the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.
Originally sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the act provided for the freedom of all enslaved persons within the District of Columbia, compensation (up to $300) of loyal persons who filed a petition to the Commissioners affirming their claim on the manumitted person(s), and the opportunity for those emancipated to emigrate to another country such as Haiti or Liberia by offering $100 for that purpose.
The Act passed easily in both the House (92-38) and Senate (29-14). In the months following the enactment of the law, commissioners approved more than 930 petitions, granting freedom to 2,989 former slaves.
Wilson went on to introduce the first post-war civil rights bill in 1865 and also influenced Congress’s passage of constitutional amendments to guarantee citizenship rights to African Americans. Elected Vice President in 1873, he became ill shortly after taking office and died on November 22, 1875.