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A government document showing claims paid for emancipated slaves to their former owners.

Kiplinger Library, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Five hundred and forty-seven dollars and fifty cents. According to the records of the District of Columbia that is the amount that Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, who lived on Lafayette Square, was paid by the federal government for Melinda Lawson, a slave he was forced to free under the District of Columbia Emancipation Act passed by Congress and signed by Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862. At the same time, Tayloe received another $547.50 for a second enslaved woman named Catherine Lawson. Slave owners in Washington were paid an average of $300 for each slave they had to free under the Act and ultimately, the federal government paid almost one million dollars for the freedom of approximately 3100 slaves. The District of Columbia Emancipation Act is the only example of compensated emancipation in the United States.

Perhaps Benjamin Ogle Tayloe received more than the average of $300 for Catherine and Melinda Lawson because he was from a prominent and well-connected family. Even though the Lawsons are the only two slaves Tayloe sought compensation for in 1862, we know that his family had held many other slaves on Lafayette Square. Some are listed in the marriage registry at St. John's Church, also located on the Square. In both the 1830 and 1840 censuses, 7 people are listed as enslaved in Tayloe household. In the 1860 census, 5 are listed. From census to census, the ages of the enslaved people in the Tayloe household change radically, illustrating that slaves were not always allowed to stay in one place for a long period of time. Whether it was because they were "hired out"—that is, rented to other households—or because they were sold or sent to another of their owner's properties, the lives of the enslaved people on Lafayette Square were often characterized by instability brought about by the decisions of their owners.