Were Some Slave Owners Paid Reparations by US Government When Slavery Ended?

Reportedly, each former slave owner in the District of Columbia was paid $300 — the equivalent of nearly $8,000 in 2021 dollars.

  • Published
Person, Human, Drawing
Image via Library of Congress

Claim

Some slave owners in the District of Columbia were paid up to $300 for each freeperson emancipated by anti-slavery laws.

Origin

Nearly nine months before U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation calling for the end of slavery, the District of Columbia outlawed the slavery and paid reparations to former slave owners.  

This historical tidbit was widely circulated via social media after an opinion piece was published by The New York Times in April 2019, and Snopes readers subsequently asked our team to verify the veracity of this meme: 

MEME: Did you know that when slavery ended in the USA, slave 'owners' received reparations from the gov. for losing 'property' (us)?

This claim is true, but only for the District of Columbia. No such reparations were paid to former slave owners when slavery ended across the whole of the United States in 1865.

Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act into law on April 16, 1862. The bill immediately freed enslaved people in the district and compensated former slave owners who were loyal to the Union up to $300 for each freeperson, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office — just under $8,000 per person in 2021. (You can read the entire legislation here.) 

“Over the next nine months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves,” wrote the U.S. National Archives

An Act of April 16, 1862, called for “the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia. Image courtesy of National Archives

The signing of the bill did not mark the end of slavery across the U.S., nor did it provide reparations to slave owners outside of the nation’s capital. Slavery officially ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865.