Watch Night: reflections on 150 years of freedom
Tomorrow night, December 31, 2012, marks 150 years since Freedom’s Eve was celebrated throughout the American South. Although the last night of 1862 was not the first time someone held a church service until midnight, that particular New Year’s Eve marked a special moment for some 3 million slaves. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect January 1, 1863 and free the enslaved black families of the rebelling Confederate states. Many African-American churches hold Watch Night Services on the last night of the year to worship God and commemorate the New Year’s Eve night their ancestors waited up to see if freedom would come. Although it would be a couple of years until all American slaves were free and more than a century until the black American realized true equality (particularly in the South), January 1, 1863 still stands as perhaps the single most notable day in the African descendants’ struggle for liberty.
As a genealogy hobbyist, I study the records our ancestors left in order to learn their story. For the American slave, few documents exist prior to emancipation. My wife’s relatives – the ancestors of my future children and grandchildren – were held as slaves in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Some may have attended Watch Night services similar to those still held in our community today. As I reflect on 150 years of freedom for African-Americans, I try to envision those families on Freedom’s Eve. On a long night of great uncertainty and anticipation, these men and women turned to their faith for strength and hope. As with all of our ancestors, I am grateful for the obstacles they endured to provide us with the opportunities of today. I find comfort in hoping that the life we will live in 2013 is the answer to those prayers 150 years ago.