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The History Behind the Holiday That’s Pushing Tax Day Back to April 18

4 minute read

Few things are as certain in this life as the fact that Tax Day will come around year after year — typically, on April 15. Not in 2017. The final deadline for filing 2016 taxes falls on Tuesday, April 18 this year partly because the 15th falls on a Saturday, but also thanks to an annual holiday being observed in Washington, D.C., on the Monday on which the tax deadline would otherwise fall.

Every year, D.C. celebrates Emancipation Day to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln signing a bill ending slavery in the District on April 16, 1862. When the 16th falls on a weekend, as it does this year, the city observes the day on the nearest weekday. And under the tax code, as Money reports, holidays in D.C. impact the deadline to file taxes for all Americans.

So what exactly is this holiday that’s given Americans a few extra days to file?

In 1862, the president signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which granted freedom to over 3,000 enslaved persons and compensated slave owners for their release. The practical reason Lincoln was able to do so has to do with the fact that D.C., because it lacks the governmental structures that the states do, could have its laws changed by the federal government — but the reason why doing so was even more profound. The presence of slavery in the nation’s seat of government, even as Lincoln’s government sought to resolve the issue nationally, was a painful irony. According to a history of Emancipation Day provided by the D.C. government, Lincoln released a document that read in part:

I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in this district, and I have ever desired to see the National Capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there has never been in my mind any question upon the subject except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances. If there be matters within and about this act which might have taken a course or shape more satisfactory to my judgments, I do not attempt to specify them.

D.C.’s slaves were freed about nine months before the President signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively freed slaves in the confederate states.

The White House Historical Association notes that black elites in Washington started celebrating April 16 beginning in 1866, with parades that stretched across the district, but the demonstrations stopped in 1901 due to segregation as well as class divides within the black community:

The African American bourgeoisie worried the parades demonstrated the “dregs” rather than the progression of the race. To block the tide of segregation and bigotry, the burgeoning black middle class believed they needed a mantle of respectability for protection. The death knell for this holiday arrived when prominent African Americans withdrew their support. Ending in 1901, the parades highlighted a bright legacy in the history of the black community in Washington. The parades represented the pride, dignity, strength and the progress of African-Americans.

Local organizers worked to keep the memory of Emancipation Day alive throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when smaller events were held to publicly commemorate the holiday. According to the Washington Times, a local woman named Loretta Carter Hanes led the efforts to revive the celebrations. By 2002 the parades were back on and in 2005 D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams signed legislation that made Emancipation day an official holiday.

While Emancipation Day is a local holiday, meaning most city offices are closed, it is not observed by the federal government. Nevertheless, these days the holiday is an event replete with activities that celebrate D.C. and African American history and culture. This year, the city will host a breakfast, a parade, a concert, and finish the celebration off with a fireworks display.

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