Smith Special Productions makes giant parade balloons, and lots of them. The Williamsport, Pa., company tends toward cartoon animals like “Tally Ho the Toucan” and “Icee the Shy Little Penguin.” But District taxpayers got gasbags with a little more gravitas from the company on Wednesday, thanks to $15,120 from the D.C. Council.
The balloons, featuring figures like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, floated above the festivities at Wednesday’s Emancipation Day parade. Even though Smith Special made nine balloons, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans joked a week earlier at a Council breakfast that a helium-filled version of one Emancipation Day figure had been overlooked: At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange.
Orange is the closest thing that the District’s nine-year-old holiday has to a founding father. In 2000, Orange, then the councilmember from Ward 5, passed legislation noting April 16, 1862, the day the federal government paid $1 million to buy freedom for slaves in the District.
Four years after that bill, Orange pushed through one that made Emancipation Day a District government holiday, meaning D.C. government employees and public school students had the day off to go to the parade. (Though that didn’t necessarily mean they’d spend the day attending.) In 2006, Orange rode in a horse-drawn carriage with then-Mayor Anthony Williams after the horse meant to pull Orange’s own carriage got too scared to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
When Orange returned to the Council in 2011, his love for Emancipation Day hadn’t diminished. Since then, Orange’s Council staff, along with the Council’s Office of the Secretary, has administered the festivities, while Orange serves as the “presiding officer.” Last year, Orange argued successfully to increase the budget for this year’s events by $100,000, to $350,000.
Emancipation Day loves Orange back. In 2013, the holiday’s budget included $2,500 for a promotional video that featured narration from Orange and—at one moment—fireworks bursting over his illuminated face (the same video company received $5,000 for this week’s events). A related Emancipation Day booklet featured pictures of Orange and his family so prominently that it that called to mind North Korea’s Kim dynasty. The parade’s contractors include former Orange consultants, too: Marketing firm Otim Williams, for example, received $10,750 to promote the parade just a month after it designed Orange’s mayoral campaign website
Despite the budget increase, the crowds at the parade have stayed stubbornly small. Nearly 10 years after the District declared Emancipation Day an official holiday, it’s time to consider how much of the Emancipation Day money is being used to honor freedom, and how much is being used to honor Orange.
Read more Raining on Vincent Orange’s Parade