'Watch Nights,' A New Year's Celebration Of Emancipation

NPR | Dec. 29, 2012 5:16 p.m. | Updated: Dec. 30, 2012 3:16 p.m.

Contributed By:

Allison Keyes

The National Archives is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by putting the original document on display over New Year’s weekend.

The institution is also hosting a series of programs, including a “Watch Night” on New Year’s Eve, following a tradition dating back to 1862.

Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National museum of African American history and culture, says the power of the idea of freedom to people held in bondage is behind a tradition called Watch Night.

The tradition began on Dec. 31, 1862, as abolitionists and others waited for word — via telegraph, newspaper or word of mouth — that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued.

“But a lot of it, at least the initial Watch Night, was really many of the free black community,” she says.

The Modern Watch Night

Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has held Watch Night services for 35 years. Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. says this year’s service will begin with praise, testimony and music.

“You might hear an anthem, you might hear a spiritual [or] you might hear a gospel,” Hicks says.

Hicks says that somewhere in the service – he hasn’t made up his mind just when yet – there will be a sermon “designed to address the progressive and regressive moves we have been through as a people.”

Hicks says that Watch Night is deeply rooted in the history of blacks in America – especially at a time when the community is still struggling.

Bunch says he smiles when people talk about how they’re going to stay up for the New Year.

“Because they are celebrating the freedom of African Americans,” he says.

Remembering Emancipation

Former slave Charlie Smith was 21 years old when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, and freedom was declared.

In an interview for a USDA radio program Smith gave when he was 119 years old — about five decades ago — he said that historic day didn’t make an immediate difference to his life at the Smith family ranch in Texas. Smith said he continued to stay and work on the ranch. “Yeah, I stayed right in the house,” Smith said.

In fact, National Archives African-American records specialist Reginald Washington says the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t immediately free any slave.

Washington says the proclamation only applied to areas where the federal government had no control or ability to enforce its provisions. The document that actually freed the slaves was the 13th Amendment.

The proclamation, however, changed the character of the conflict from a war to preserve the union to a war for human liberation. When President Lincoln started to sign it, he hesitated.

“His hand started shaking,” Washington says, “so he didn’t want to sign it so someone would think he had second thoughts about it.”

The president collected himself and then signed.

“Several publishers published small versions … pocket versions of the Emancipation Proclamation to be given to soldiers and officers,” says the Smithsonian’s Lonnie Bunch. He says the tiny documents were read to slaves.

“There are wonderful reminiscences by the enslaved of saying, ‘I was on master Johnson’s plantation and a soldier came and he took out a little piece of paper and suddenly said we were free,’” he says.

The Emancipation Proclamation will be on display at the National Archives from December 30 through January 1.

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